I’m sorry, but I’m taking a stand. I have categorically, absolutely, wholeheartedly had enough of so called ‘voluntourism’. Like many a modern day phenomena, it expresses itself through social media, and this is where one becomes alerted to the mass exodus each summer of university undergraduates on such stints. There are the photos of volunteers embracing children, bright eyed and excited, volunteers larking around in the school playground, volunteers starting work on building, volunteers making a real difference…
I am sceptical.
A couple of weeks in a developing country are a mere drop in the ocean compared to their westernised, and frankly capitalist, existences back at home.
Let’s be clear, we are not talking about sustained, long term, locally cooperative unpaid work here. Voluntourism is a different concept, its appeal, I believe, lies in the allure of discovering a previously unknown, preferably exotic, place through a short, sharp burst of charitable work. It would appear that any hopes of voluntourism achieving actual tangible and permanent change are at best naïve and at worst colonialist in their nature. And likewise, the chances of the volunteers themselves being truly moulded by the experience are low: a couple of weeks in a developing country are a mere drop in the ocean compared to their westernised, and frankly capitalist, existences back at home.
“As soon as I walked into that dusty, remote town and the smiling children started coming up to me, I just knew my Facebook profile photo would change forever” said a 22 year old Angela Fisher after six days spent in rural Africa, as ‘reported’ by online parody news source ‘The Onion’. We can chuckle a little at the humour here: the unworldliness and the erm honesty, but we would be unwise to assume that this is merely a joke, and not at all truthful in its depiction of the self interested voluntourist. Research described the role of voluntourism as a catalyst for developing areas into tourist destinations, a sort of traveller sticky glue. But it is sadly, my opinion, that this is where the remit of voluntourism begins and ends.
The orphan trade is an example of tragic modern day child trafficking and despite international and Nepali laws and policies which oppose the use of children’s homes, except as a last resort, this unnecessary displacement of children continues.
A mere few months ago, in May 2014, there were reports of the booming Nepalese ‘orphan trade’ which was being funded by the equally booming voluntourism industry. Next Generation Nepal, a charity which helps reconnect trafficked children with their families, discussed the issue in a report by their central child welfare board. They described how there are “over 11,000 children living in ‘orphanages’ in Nepal, yet an estimated two-thirds of these children are not orphans”, and that “only 10% of children’s homes in Nepal meet the Government’s own legal standards”. The orphan trade is an example of tragic modern day child trafficking and despite international and Nepali laws and policies which oppose the use of children’s homes, except as a last resort, this unnecessary displacement of children continues. Even, in the case of a “legit” orphanage, one has to question the integrity of an organisation that will allow hundreds of untrained volunteers to traipse into and out of, inevitably traumatised, children’s lives.
There is little doubt that voluntourists have good intentions, but I would question whether they appreciate the potential for harm and disruption that they and their relative wealth may bring.
Image courtesy of Volunteer Abroad UBELONG via Flickr