Voluntourism: Ego-Massaging For Westerners

Voluntourism: Ego-Massaging For Westerners

Giving you the insight into matters directly related to student life is the Pi Comment column, Spotlight: UCL, Universities and Young People, where our team of columnists tackle the issues affecting students today. With many students taking full advantage of opportunities to go on gap years, or volunteering opportunities abroad, Cathy Meyer-Funnel argues that their good-willed intentions may not necessarily translate into positive outcomes for those living in their destination country. 

Nowadays it seems travelling to far and exotic destinations has become part of the rite of passage into adulthood. Whether it be your standard ‘gap yah’ backpacking around Asia or South America, or interrailing around Europe for those on a slightly smaller budget, no CV or Instagram account would be complete without details of your incredible ‘life-changing’ exploits that ‘opened your eyes’ to a different way of life. (At this point I feel I should point out I am in no way being judgmental, as I have been totally guilty of this myself). In fact, there are undeniable benefits of travelling to new places and experiencing new cultures, and should perhaps even be encouraged at this time in our lives when we have no real responsibilities or career-related time constraints. Yet, a new trend has been brought to light over the past few years that has brought the legitimacy of these trips abroad into question.

This has become known as voluntourism; when a group of western, predominantly white and almost certainly relatively wealthy students or young people travel to a poorer part of the world to ‘do good’. This could be building new homes for the local community, helping out in an orphanage or raising awareness about environmental issues. While their intentions may be purely noble, there is evidence that this form of tourism has now become a source of harm to the same people it set out to help.

Taking orphanages as an example, The Guardian reports that children are far less likely to experience abuse or neglect with a family than they are in an institution, as even in the best orphanages children still do not ‘develop normally’. Furthermore, since the end of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia the number of orphanages in the country has been growing – because of the demand from Australian tourists who want to work in them, believing they are in some way helping the community.

As shocking as this may sound, it takes an even more sinister turn when one considers the outdated trope of the ‘white saviour’ coming to educate the primitive masses. This summer the University of Wolverhampton came under fire for the billboard poster it used to advertise the BSc Public Health course. The picture shows a white woman with her back to the camera looking at a group of black children, with the caption ‘If you want to explore new worlds. Start here.’ The image caused huge controversy in the academic community, particularly for its overtones of ‘colonialism and patriotism’. At present, having only recently allowed ourselves to admit that our colonial past was not such a great thing for everyone involved, are we merely reinforcing racist stereotypes by travelling to these countries with a view to bettering them in some way?

The idea that we could take valuable work away from locals in the area who really need it purely to enhance our future employability does not sit well with anyone. But in an increasingly competitive job market, saturated with Russell Group graduates with arguably similar levels of qualification, it feels like these projects are needed to help one stand out. I would never attempt to justify any level of exploitation of course; so can a line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ volunteering schemes ever be drawn?

My Turtle Conservation Experience

Here I can only draw on my own personal experience. Last summer I spent several weeks volunteering at a turtle sanctuary in Costa Rica – as well as helping to look after the eggs and releasing the babies, we assumed a general responsibility as eco-warriors. We cleaned up beaches, tried to educate the local community about the possibilities of reducing and recycling, and naturally swore we would never use straws or any other single use plastics ever again. We were not hurting anyone. Yet since my return to the UK it has been irritatingly easy to slip back into old habits. Now, conversations about my trip have tended to revolve around the incredible activities I took part in and what amazing pictures I uploaded onto social media, rather than the negative impact of our plastic consumption on marine life.

I’m only trying to be honest here. One could reflect on this more positively and say that my travels allowed me to enjoy a new culture I would otherwise have never known about, rather than relying on stereotypical speculations on what countries in Central America are usually like. Perhaps if that is all you want out of travelling, then no one should have a problem with it. If you are going with your own money to see something because you want to, knowing it will make a difference to no one but yourself – it may seem selfish, but is perhaps preferable to illusions of charity, even just for your conscience.

We all know there are multiple advantages and disadvantages to travelling anywhere, for any reason. But maybe we need to be a little more aware of what these advantages actually are – if any – especially in relation to the lives of others who we may be perversely impacting, despite good intentions, through our travels.