Voluntourism: Who is it really for?

Graphic: Fia Miller

Graphic: Fia Miller

Philanthropy: it’s a word that conjures up images of extravagant gala benefits, celebrity-founded charities, and national non-profit organizations. It is traditionally associated with large-scale acts of aid—significant amounts of money, clothing, and food donated to impoverished countries in need. Today, acts of philanthropy can operate on a smaller scale. Various community service groups, obscure student travel programs, and random, benevolent individuals all contribute to provide foreign aid to distressed countries. There is no prerequisite needed to help—anyone from anywhere can commit to a cause with sufficient time and money. Due to the advent of social media, charitable efforts are thoroughly documented: selfies taken with every child in the village, an Instagram post of the sun setting over a freshly painted house, and thousands of status updates reiterating the value of their “unforgettable experiences.” How helpful are these small-scale service trips? What are those posts actually showing?

Instead of improving conditions overseas, the combination of unchecked assistance and inexperienced volunteers has created more economic issues in foreign countries than before aid began. In his book Toxic Charity, urban activist Robert Lupton writes: “Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of life, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work.” Haiti, a country struck with natural disaster, has received $8.3 billion in the past four decades, but is 25 percent poorer than it was previously in 1945 and is currently the poorest country in Western Hemisphere.

“If you have too much of something, the price of the product will drop,” Lupton writes, explaining the relationship between excess aid and increased unemployment rates. Following an earthquake or a hurricane, volunteers spring to action, organizing donations for disaster relief— collecting clothes and canned foods for the cold and the hungry. Regions like East Africa, which used to have large clothing industries, now circulate an abundance of donated apparel, sold by street vendors for “less than a dollar,” according to Lupton. With every donated shoe and shirt, unemployment rises as there is a surplus of supplies, but a lack of demand. The clothing industries have been forced to close; simultaneously, destroying any job opportunities that had previously been available. Although aid is encouraged, it should be limited to providing necessities and strictly meeting the demands of those in need.

Shifting away from nationwide humanitarian organizations to newly-founded service programs, the quality of aid has severely deteriorated. These new programs are often made for profit and designed to make its young participants feel a sense of accomplishment, rather than addressing actual issues. Programs that are slowly gaining popularity, such as Rustic Pathways and Cross-Cultural Solutions, fix their itineraries to include ample free time and countless outdoor excursions—more closely resembling a vacation than a mission trip. Many do not require any former experience on the part of the volunteer, allowing middle school and high school teens to build houses and paint walls prior to having ever held a hammer or a rolling brush. Due to this lack of volunteer experience, these programs cannot move forward to target larger, long-term problems in the community and can only continuously provide relief aid. In his article “Why You Should Consider Canceling Your Short-Term Mission Trips,” journalist Darren Carlson describes his own experience on a service trip—watching workers repaint houses “twenty times by twenty-two different short-term teams,” showing how programs often recycle tasks just to give the volunteers something to do. Unregulated and unproven, these new programs fail to provide substantial aid and lack long-term solutions for long-term problems.

Skimming through the testimonies of seasoned Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteers, the majority include comments about taking pictures with the local kids, the stunning geographical beauty of the region, and the cathartic, life-changing nature of the entire experience. Blatantly missing are mentions of difficulties: language barriers, challenging work, and obstacles that were faced. It is apparent that some, or most, of these helpers volunteered to derive personal benefit from these trips—to have that amazing experience in the “cool” location while taking enough pictures to remember it for a lifetime.

It would have been more cost-effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level,” admits one “voluntourist.” This savior complexthe need to be benevolent to seem kind and philanthropiconly harms those that are deserving of help. Increasing “voluntourism” allows us to cleanse our own consciences, at the expense of creating harmful consequences for the people we aim to help. It’s only by fully understanding what the community needs that actions can be taken to create beneficial, long-term solutions.

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