The Dangers of Voluntourism
By Yanling Guo, Grace Davies-Browne, Nat ‘The Nathanael’ Knowles, Diana Potacka, Oliver Swan, Isobel Welton
There is an increasing trend of people, predominantly students from developed countries, exploring parts of the developing world through volunteering initiatives. As a result, this so-called voluntourism has come under greater scrutiny from experts, as well as within public discourse. We want to explore how the caricature of voluntourists as entitled, ignorant or misguided has been developed, and how academics, by utilising anthropological perspectives, have critiqued voluntourism itself. Then, we will consider how this caricature could be deconstructed.
How has an image of the ‘white saviour’ become a caricature of voluntourists?
Whilst a volunteering framework possibly facilitates cross-cultural connections, the responsibility and authority implicit in volunteer roles might be unjustified; foreign volunteers do not necessarily have the capacity to deliver aid or transfer skills and knowledge. Freidus’ (2016) article highlights the lack of applicable skills volunteers actually bring. She describes the excitement of a volunteer to build a chicken coop in Malawi, yet notes she had no skills or experience whatsoever in doing so (p.1312). This assumed ‘Western superiority’ and authority of skills can lead to displacement of local labour which could be more suitable and help to reduce national unemployment rates. The ‘Helping Narrative’ of the West giving to the needy developing world reproduces structural inequalities, further entrenching the dichotomization of ‘them and us’.
Often, the motivations of volunteers are questioned. People challenge the decision to go abroad to help others, rather than help those who are in need in their local community. This suggests that people often volunteer abroad not because of a desire to help people, but due to the ‘exotic’ location in which they can help these people. Woosnam and Lee’s work highlights why voluntourists are often perceived in this negative light, writing: ‘many voluntourists are more interested in achieving personal goals rather than interacting or helping residents in need’ (Woosnam and Lee, 2011: 309).
‘Aidland’ literature perfectly illustrates an excessive focus on aid workers which bares similarities to the narcissistic focus on volunteers in conjunction with voluntourism. Indeed, Harrison critiques ‘Aidland’ suggesting it has the potential to be too ‘inward looking’ (2013: 264). The corroborates a wider issue in aid and development: the lack of attention paid to the local. The same criticism can be applied to voluntourism; Freidus (2016) and Palacios (2010) both highlight this imbalance in their works.
The popular satirical blog and Instagram account, ‘Barbie Savior’ exemplifies the negative caricature of voluntourists found in public discourse. The discourse of development often creates simplistic and consumable notions of aid where issues of inequality and power tend to be largely ignored and not contextualised. For example, inexperienced volunteers assume positions of power, such as the role of teacher. This could inadvertently reproduce cultural images of Western superiority whilst at the same time displacing local labour. Whilst being a spoof blog, ‘Barbie Saviour’ is painted as being ignorant of the work she is doing, obsessed with her image of helping the poor, and perpetuating the problems voluntourism seeks to solve. This caricature mirrors the issues with voluntourists emphasised by academics.
How can this caricature of the voluntourist be deconstructed and voluntourism be seen in a more positive light?
Although ‘Barbie Saviour’ is useful in that it makes the problems with voluntourists clearer, it has the potential of dissuading potential volunteers. This would be problematic because what are needed are not fewer volunteers, but better volunteers. This can be achieved through improved allocation of expertise, better contextual knowledge, and changes to volunteering habits which perpetuate inequalities between ‘the West’ and ‘the developing world’. Whilst ‘Barbie Saviour’ also promotes a guide which aims to educate voluntourists on how to avoid making such mistakes, academics such as Palacios (2010) have also added to the discussion on improving voluntourism.
Palacios’ article (2010) aims to encourage volunteering organisations to recognise the latent challenges and address the neo-colonial connotations of volunteering, which are evident in the negative stereotypes of the developing world. He argues that these volunteering initiatives can be improved by reframing their goals as opportunities for intercultural understanding and learning. Volunteering organisations should market their programmes through this language of intercultural understanding. Not only would this benefit both the volunteers and the host organisation, but it would also help to mediate the unrealistic expectations of volunteers and what they can achieve in a short period of time. In addition, these inaccurate assumptions could be avoided by the compulsory education of potential volunteers about the political and economic context before their arrival. This could also shift volunteers’ focus from personal goals as well as facilitate self-reflection and critique of ideas of poverty in developing countries.
If we pay attention to the critique of voluntourism by both academics and the public, we can gain a deeper understanding of its issues. Thus, with this increased insight and by following Palacios’ suggestions, the satirical caricature of the ‘Barbie Saviour’ could be deconstructed and the dangers of voluntourism mediated.
Barbie Savior. (2016). Instagram post by @barbiesavior • 16 April 2016 at 6:29pm UTC. [online] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/BERW7Vvsffu/ [Accessed 29 Nov. 2017].
Freidus, A. L. (2016). Unanticipated outcomes of voluntourism among Malawi’s orphans. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 1-16. doi:10.1080/09669582.2016.1263308.
Harrison, E. (2013). ‘Beyond the Looking Glass? “Aidland” Reconsidered’. Critique of Anthropology, 33(3), pp. 263–279.
Palacios, C. (2010). Volunteer tourism, development and education in a postcolonial world: conceiving global connections beyond aid. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 18(7), pp.861-878.
Woosnam, K. and Jung Lee, Y. (2011). Applying social distance to voluntourism research. Annals of Tourism Research, 38(1), pp.309-313.