I recently went on a tour of Africa. 40 days, 6 countries, and a whole lot of unforgettable experiences. However, I’d wanted to visit Africa for years and I had always planned on going as a volunteer. I wanted to make a difference. But as I started to read more about the concept of “voluntourism,” I learned that my good intentions could actually leave damaging marks on the communities I visited.
For one, I don’t have the skills to make a genuinely positive impact. This is true of most who go on voluntourism trips. Instead, local communities often use more resources for training volunteers than they would if they just hired local workers. In addition, even with training, volunteers are usually still not equipped with the skills necessary to do a good job. I’ve heard countless stories of missionaries going to build schools or hospitals only for the locals to have to rebuild.
It would have been much more cost-efficient for the locals to take the volunteer’s money and put it towards the project directly rather than towards their training.
I also do not think that 40 days is enough time to dedicate to volunteering. In addition to the time and resources that the communities need to dedicate to each new volunteer, it can also be damaging to continuously have new volunteers come and go. This is especially true in orphanages, schools, and hospitals. Many of the children may already be traumatized. Becoming attached to new people that will leave a few weeks later is not helping the cause.
Furthermore, there’s the issue of the “white savior” complex. Constantly having volunteers coming in from Western society perpetuates the view that impoverished communities are helpless and can only be “saved” by outsiders. This is especially true with children. In schools and orphanages, children may come to view their white visitors as their heroes. These visitors who are having the ultimate “volunteer experience” for just a few weeks are revered, as opposed to the local teachers, administrators, and even parents who work full-time to improve their situation. Moreover, this complex leads communities to depend on the short-term help that voluntourism provides rather than developing long-term solutions to create a self-sustainable foundation.
Finally, after reading about the detriments of voluntourism, I had to reevaluate my true intentions behind wanting to volunteer. Many volunteers just want something to put on their resumes or new Instagram photos. I thought my motivation was better, but was it really? Did I really want to help people, or did I want to feel like I was helping people? If I’m being completely honest, my inspiration was at least a little bit selfish. I think that most volunteering is a bit selfish, and that’s fine if it ultimately brings good. But it can also be misleading. It can lead us to believe that we are doing good simply because a little child comes up to hug us. We want to believe we are doing good so we look for any immediate signs to support this hypothesis. We don’t realize how much effort and time it would really take to make a difference. More importantly, we ignore the harm we are doing in the process.
I’m not saying that all volunteering is bad. In fact, I met many volunteers while I was traveling who seemed to be making a difference. These volunteers were skilled doctors, nurses, and teachers who were able to commit several months to the cause. I think this is one of the few exceptions to the voluntourism problem. However, I think there are other ways to make a positive impact for those of us who do not have these skills. We can help by donating and increasing awareness. And as Charlotte Robertson suggests we can help behind the scenes of organizations where locals are the ones working in the field. This eliminates the problem of the white savior complex while also ensuring that the people who know what’s best for their community are the ones doing the work.