My journey of becoming a voluntourism cynic
It’s taken me a while to come up with the title of this blog because it’s hard to sum up my feelings in one word. Sometimes I’m a voluntourism supporter and other times I’m a despiser. But here I am, a self-confessed voluntourism cynic who intends to write about how I’ve come to view the concept of voluntourism as much more, and way more detrimental, than innocent trips to help the ‘needy’. This journey starts back in 2013 when some of my school classmates went on a trip to Bolivia, includes a trip to South East Asia in 2014 and ends in 2019 where I’m an International Development student who keeps gaining a further insight and knowledge into the messy world of voluntourism. To fit every detour and stop off point of this journey in would result in an essay, so it’s cut down and refined to include the moments which impacted me the most.
The journey begins 6 years ago when I was sat in an assembly about a volunteer trip to Bolivia- the first time the concept of overseas volunteering was introduced to me. 16 year old me, who loved travelling and had just started learning Spanish, was very interested when the assembly began. It didn’t take long for this interest to turn into doubt, concern and disgust. The ‘opportunity’ on offer involved raising nearly £4000 for a 4 week trip, of which around 2 weeks of ‘acclimatisation’ seemed to just be a holiday. The other part of the trip included volunteering in an orphanage. I completely understood why my classmates wanted to go- essentially a low cost holiday to Bolivia, helping supposedly some of the poorest children in the world, and a promise to enhance your CV and gain valuable experience. Despite supporting them, attending a fundraiser and wishing them well, I couldn’t help but think that the money could go directly to villages to fund salaries, construction projects or whatever the local community deemed necessary. I doubted that a group of 16 year old Brits who didn’t speak Spanish would hugely benefit the lives of these children and admittedly I struggled to see how my classmates hadn’t questioned this and somehow thought they had suitable skills for the task.
So, August came and my Facebook was filled with stunning photos of Bolivian scenery and…selfies with Bolivian children?! At the time, I was a volunteer in a local Girlguiding group, with a DBS check, and had attended safeguarding training where it was emphasised that selfies and social media exposure were big no goes. The fact that the children were almost accessories in the photos made me cringe. I then scrolled through the photos and I distinctly remember stopping at one in particular and thinking ‘You cannot be serious’. The photo showed a newly painted wall complete with a mural and handprints. I scrutinised the before and after photos and the former did not seem to be in a horrendous state- I’ve seen worse walls in local village halls and schools. This group of well-meaning pupils had, between them, raised around £40,000 to have a trip to Bolivia and paint a wall. I mulled over these feelings of anger and disbelief for a while…imagine what that money could have done? And more to the point, what was the real reason for going? I found it hard to believe that a newly painted wall was on the ‘most needed’ list of this community. Ah yes, that once in a lifetime opportunity. As time went on I began to realise that this once in a lifetime opportunity for Western pupils is by no means a once in a life-time opportunity for the children in these orphanages. Constant streams of smiley volunteers who seem to care for the children come, pick them up, hug them, play with them, and leave.
In the following years I started to realise that streams of smiley volunteers make their way across the globe. In 2014, whilst researching in preparation for a backpacking holiday in South East Asia, I read a lot about the problems tourists and volunteers were contributing to in the countries I was going to visit. Mentions of corrupt orphanages and the importance of not treating children as tourist attractions were frequent. Although it was never my intention to volunteer or visit places, I did want to find out if there was anything of use I could do from the UK before going. I started to dig deeper and came across a small, grassroots charity in Luang Prabang, Laos. At the time, they were collecting baby clothes to keep babies in the mountainous villages warm which were distributed in local hospitals to encourage mothers to attend them. So, given I only needed half a backpack full of stuff I filled the other half with second hand baby clothes.I took the clothes to the drop off point in Luang Prabang and got chatting to one of the founders of the charity. She was incredibly interesting to talk to and the conversation really cemented my suspicions about voluntourism that had begun in the assembly a year earlier. It also opened my eyes to the sheer extent of the problems I had read about before coming. She told us how fed up she was of tourists and volunteers turning up, thinking they could do whatever they wanted and acting like they knew better than local residents. Something that really sticks in my mind was when she said that one local school had been painted 6 times in the last year, despite the teachers telling the volunteers that the wall did not need painting. Although encouraging people to volunteer, she questioned why people don’t look in their local areas first and emphasises the importance of checking details out before volunteering.
These pieces of advice stayed in my mind whilst I had two years out before deciding to go to university. I spent these years in Spain, Germany and Italy as an au pair, language assistant and English teacher. In between each new venture I would look for jobs abroad, and overseas volunteering projects would invariably pop up, highlighting just how easy it is to be tempted into doing one. I was never tempted into it and very cautious about what sites I would look at out of interest. But it often came up in conversations with friends and family, some of whom were considering doing placements. I only repeated things I had come across before and highlighted a few issues I was aware of. It’s still not the easiest conversation, but I’ve recently learnt a lot more about it and feel that I can use many different examples and stories to back up my opinion.
I’m now studying International Development with Spanish at the University of Sussex which has made me question things more and be even more critical than I was before. Although my school of studies is (thankfully) very careful about what organisations they promote, opportunities to volunteer abroad are never very far away and the topic has been on my mind since starting my degree. In the last year I went to a screening of ‘The Love You Give’ and read the ‘Little Princes’, which both opened my eyes further to the complexity and issues around orphanage volunteering, and volunteering in general. It really is a can of worms that once open, seems to be never ending. I’ve learnt a lot from talking to people about the topic, especially those who have volunteered and, from those I’ve met, feel awkward and bad about what they took part in. Fellow students who question why they went and painted schools, built shoddy toilet blocks, tried to teach English when pupils hadn’t yet grasped their mother tongue. I know that there is improvement in this sector and I remain hopeful. The organisation my school went to Bolivia with no longer runs projects in orphanages, but after a recent trip home and a flick through the local newspaper, I saw that they are going to Sri Lanka for 2 weeks to volunteer in a school. This, for me, is still problematic as it is short term working with children but small steps are good steps. So that is why I would describe myself as a voluntourism cynic, as I know there are good projects out there among some dodgy ones but I encourage everyone I speak to about this voluntourism to think carefully about their intentions and potential impacts, both positive and negative.
After note- I have just been Facebook ‘stalking’ some of my old classmates who went on the aforementioned Bolivian trip to find a photo for this blog. The same uncomfortable, shocked feelings came up again. The physical proximity of the volunteers with the children makes you think they were close for 5 years- not 5 days. The wall was decorated, complete with the hand prints of the volunteers, name of the organisation and school. It made for a great photo of the volunteers with paint on their hands outside the wall but I can’t help but think that this is what matters the most about these trips. The photos, stories and memories volunteers take away and not really what they leave.