A Note about Voluntourism

One of the things I always try to be mindful of when I travel (especially when I am traveling to do volunteer work/humanitarian aid work) is that I am cautious of activities that might push me into the realm of Voluntourism. When I give lectures about the work I do (hoping to inspire the next generation of great humanitarian minds, or just to educate the public) I find that the topic of Voluntourism comes up a lot. And it should because it is something that I have seen during my travels that does need to be addressed.

While the simple definition is traveling and volunteering (usually with an NGO), Voluntourism has quickly become synonymous with Instagram pictures of nicely dressed, make-up clad young white women posing with unclean, half-starving African children as proof that they have somehow made a difference just by gracing another country with their presence. I am not saying this is true of every person who travels, but it seems that going to impoverished countries has become more of a photo opportunity to ease some unconscious guilt of privilege, or to one up a group of selfish friends who probably wouldn’t care anyway.

When I was working overseas in Greece with the unaccompanied minors from Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan I found myself in the situation of having to decide whether to let what I called ‘weekend volunteers’ – you know, the people who only wanted to come into the camp once just so they could say they could. They were often surprised when I told them they would need to wear more than shorts and a tank top, and that photos would not be allowed due to the privacy and protection of minors. Not only did their objective seem to be able to snap a few pictures for their Instagram, but they also failed to understand the need for a long-term commitment (having consistency in the faces these kids see is important for their psychological welfare), but they also failed to understand even the most basic aspects of appreciating another culture’s sense of modesty (even if you are not yourself Muslim or from the Middle East, when you are choosing to work around people who are, then dressing on the modest side is a polite must). I found myself growing increasingly frustrated at these ‘weekend volunteers’, who seemed more concerned as to what they might gain from their three-hour experience than as to what damage they might do.

It was a sentiment that I know my fellow long-term volunteers felt as well. But it was something that seemed hard to explain to friends back home – though they are the same friends who found it hard to believe I would have gone overseas for something like this in the first place. So I was happily surprised to see this article circulating, which gives readers a simple test to distinguish between Voluntourism and going somewhere to actually make a difference.

The first question is perhaps the most relevant for me. Would you volunteer abroad if you had no cameras with you? How perfectly spot on. While I do have some pictures of my travels, it was never my main objective. But I think this is such an important question to ask. I wonder how many people this would deter from the work? The article poses other questions and I think they are questions every person should ask themselves before they decide to embark on what could be considered a Voluntourism trip. They are questions I have asked myself before going to each of the places I have gone overseas to work. If you are not going to a place to learn about their culture, their language, their people, their history, their struggles, and their solutions (remember, you are not some great white knight savior coming to save them), then maybe the trip isn’t for you.

Check out the article, it’s worth the short read and can really help you determine if what you are about to do is the right choice for you and that community.

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Lover of photography and world traveler in the making.

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