Voluntourism – a curse or an aid?

Being in Australia and meeting a LOT of Indians at gatherings have been tiring to say the least. Mostly because I am seen as the perfect child who has managed to get into medicine. Before I have had a chance to say my name, I am bombarded with a cannon of questions about getting into medicine and how their children can stand out from the rest in their plight to get into medical school. This got me thinking about voluntourism as many have asked whether their personal statement would stand out more if they had ‘…helped to build a library in Africa…’ written in bold across it. Scrolling through various forms of social media is the norm for most millennials. It is also not strange for you to find a few pictures of adolescents who are exploring the world to find themselves holding a black/brown/yellow/purple child. Unfortunately, I was precisely the ignorant teen that was a victim of this as I thought posting pictures of me volunteering at projects would encourage others to do so. In a way, I do still think that the power of social media can definitely be used to inspire others but in hindsight, there is a lot I would change about the way I went about it.

But it’s the thought that counts

So you’re against people helping others?

At least they’re trying their best to make a difference

Some call it catholic guilt but I have been interested in serving those less fortunate than I am ever since I watched a documentary at the age of 11/12 about the struggles of a little girl with HIV. Being an Indian living in the Western world was a privilege at the time I moved over to England. This meant that my mum had always engrained in me the importance of helping those who are vulnerable and it is something I feel strongly about. As the first generation product of immigration, I am lucky enough to have a more objective view when it comes to humanitarian aid because I can see it from both both sides.

The White Saviour Complex is a term coined by Teju Cole who is an author. It is a term that is for obvious reasons bound to touch a nerve amongst many but I do think that even though the saviour complex is predominantly prominent to one race, it should not be exclusive to it. The term highlights just how voluntourism can be counterproductive to what they are innocently hoping to achieve. I mean if you really think about it, what exactly are you going to achieve by going to a developing country? Unless you are a qualified professional like a builder/health care professional/farmer etc…, how on earth are you really going to make a difference?

Voluntourism offers idealistic individuals with vastly different socioeconomic statuses the chance to enter a society in which they mostly have no clue about the culture, language or way of life. The developing world seems to have turned into a playground of the privileged looking for redemption by escaping their life back home for a brief period of time.

So I want to introduce a couple of things I want you to think about if you are thinking of volunteering abroad:

  • Recognise your own limitations. How much of a difference are you really going to make as a college student who works part-time in retail…? Do you have a skill that would be of any practical use?
  • Be aware of your own motive for wanting to volunteer. Are you aware of your own privilege? Consider whether the money you are using to travel to the country could be put to better use.
  • It is important to develop a sensitivity to the suffering of others. No matter how hard you try, it will be very difficult for you to truly understand just what those living in poverty experience.
  • If you do travel, try to encourage opportunities for you to diminish the gross inequity. Instead of doing a poor job of laying down bricks, are there other people living in the area who can do a better job? Why not use the funds you raise to pay for workers and help build the local economy rather than pay for your flights to get there?

I write all of this from multiple approaches. I write as an Indian who is no stranger to seeing tourists trying their best to help build homes in the slums whilst taking pictures, only for it to be torn down and built properly by experienced builders. I also write this as a Briton who enjoys the many privileges of having a British passport. I do involve myself in the critique of this privilege; and I am not fooling myself when I think about poor Indian children sewing the clothes I am currently wearing and the unfairly treated workers who have farmed the coffee I drink.

I am in no way trying to make those that are hoping to make a difference feel bad. In fact, the world needs more of those people. But it is also important for those who are planning to volunteer in a different country to understand the status that they have been born with so that they are not unintentionally exploiting vulnerable people to spruce up their CV. Instead of trying to plaster over the cracks of the problem, it is more vital for us to dig deeper and solve the root problem of the cause. In my opinion, I believe the way in which we achieve this is by providing opportunities for those who are oppressed by poverty rather than riding in on a horse as the saviour and trying to make ourselves feel better about the change we are hoping to leave in that area.

If you guys are interested in getting more information about my frustrations with voluntourism from a more reliable source, you should check out a documentary called Poverty, Inc. Now I would like to leave you all with one of my favourite Instagram accounts that provides a satirical twist to voluntourism…

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