Voluntourism: are you actually helping?


By Evy Tang, Deputy Travel Editor 2017/18

Evy Tang argues voluntourism is more for the ego of Westerners than to provide aid in the third world.

I am not a fan of voluntourism because, to put it simply, it is tourism coated in a veneer of ‘goodness’ and ‘selflessness’ when actually this kind of travel is pretty selfish.

To those of you who travelled in their gap year, spent a week or two ‘helping’ at an orphanage and went of a path of self-discovery, don’t kid yourselves - you did more harm than help.

Don’t worry though, you’re not solely to blame for this overly Western phenomenon of going into the ‘other world’ to see how ‘poor people’ live. This twisted tradition dates back hundreds of years and was a key feature of the Imperial age, an age with the mentality of the white man being at the top of the food chain and those beneath in need of this encompassing figure.

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There are the travel companies that facilitate such ‘adventures’, often using rhetoric such as ‘go on an inspiring and inspirational journey’, ‘be an inspirational change and make a lasting impact on a community’; what they conveniently leave out however, is that those lasting legacies they promise aren’t rainbows and roses.

There is something inherently wrong with a system that endorses privileged and wealthy first world citizens to swoop in and ‘play poor’ and buy a holiday that makes them think they’re helping third world communities. Not only is it unhealthy and unfair to those Cambodian orphans or the patients at a rural Tanzanian hospital, but it is also thoughtless and selfish of the voluntourists. They pay little thought to what impact their flying visits actually have on these communities. Just because your new profile picture is of you holding an orphan from a third world country that doesn’t make you a saint.

I’m ashamed and guilty of selling my soul to these tour companies. I was 17 and travelled with my school, but the 17 day ‘expedition’ only made me realise how naive and selfish I was so have embarked on such a journey - I was stupid to think I would make a difference to a rural Himalayan community by helping build a greenhouse. Us skill-less 17 year-olds didn’t do much at all. The hard labour was done by locals and the money we had spent would have been put to better use donating towards the labour and raw materials than on all of our flights, onward travel and chaperoning around the mountains.

This is not to say all voluntourism is bad; if you are genuinely volunteering and staying somewhere for at least six months then it’s less about your ego inflation and more about contribution. If you’re volunteering and putting skills you already have to use - good on you. If your intentions are to ‘make a genuine and amazing contribution’ by bottle feeding a sloth in a jungle - wake up and just acknowledge you’re not a strong and amazing person.

Featured Image: Unsplash

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