Voluntourism is just soft colonialism

Voluntourism — a portmanteau of “tourism” and “volunteering” — is a rising phenomenon. Volunteers from abroad work a few hours a day building schools, hospitals, libraries, etc. In their free time, they tour and partake in cultural activities.

Interest in voluntourism has grown tremendously over time; organizations specifically target middle- and high-schoolers. But is voluntourism really a practical instrument of good? I’d say it’s just another practice borne of modern colonialist thought.

Voluntourists might tell themselves that they’re aiding the places they visit, but some report their work to be less efficient than what local labourers could accomplish alone. Blogger Philippa Biddle, who wrote about her experience in Tanzania, called her group’s work building a library there so shoddy that locals had to work at night to compensate.

She ‘worked’ just 33 hours in the 20 days she was there — and spent upwards of $6,000 on the experience. There’s a reason people pay to do this work: it’s less about helping and more about the feeling of helping — the novelty of travel.

For instance, Free the Children (a multi-million dollar charity) has been accused of “[promoting] emotional experience over education” when it comes to recruiting students for ‘humanitarian trips’ to countries such as Ecuador, India, Kenya, and several others. Their website has been criticized for “[advertising] exposure to a variety of cultural practices” as a selling point — as if humanitarian aid was a fad to buy into.

Voluntourists even relate being assigned tasks essentially for the sake of doing them. For instance, Jingting Kang, former volunteer in rural China, was surprised when the students to whom she was teaching the alphabet picked it up so quickly.

Later, she discovered that she was the seventh person who had taught it to them.

“The alphabet wasn’t something the kids were prepared to learn,” she reported. “It was just something the volunteers were prepared to teach.”

True, voluntourism exposes relatively privileged Canadian kids to harsh realities like scarcity and poverty. These trips, which often include politically and culturally grounded interactions with locals, could give people a more diverse and nuanced understanding of society and culture, equipping them to make more long-term positive differences in the world.

Yet that theoretical outcome often isn’t realized. Just look at social media’s portrayal of voluntourism. Travel videos often showcase students’ great difficulty with so much as pronouncing the name of the country they stayed in. Photos seem to focus less on actual cultural learning, and more on giving Instagram and Snapchat accounts an aesthetically pleasing ethnic vibe — or letting people brag about their altruism.

“One person can change the world,” Me to We’s website states. “We all have unique gifts to give, and when bonded together, we build a movement that’s diverse and exciting.”

While inspirational, the notion that someone with no technical skills or understanding of where they’re going can help a community, without any real training, is toxic. There’s no movement here; voluntourism is a business model designed around young millennials yearning to create change.

Usually, there are no real positive changes made — unless you count the volunteers who feel better about themselves. We’re just propagating the notion that privileged westerners have the solutions to completely change other societies, who should embrace us for it. Sounds like modern colonialism to me.