Is There a Difference Between Volunteering Overseas and Voluntourism?

“Voluntourism” and the idea of the “white savior complex” are two highly-sensitive topics for those of us engaged in work in developing countries. Some of us have a propensity for acting without first listening or asking. Americans (and others) want to give back, but knowing how to help isn’t always clear; as a result, we might spend thousands of dollars on vacations with a built-in volunteering component—popping in on a village, or an orphanage, or a slum for the day to read to the kids or hold babies. Sometimes we even spend a week or two. And the pictures we get are worth every penny, right?

When I look back at the things I said and the pictures I took during my first few visits to Uganda, I cringe. I’d like to think that I was different, that mine was a calling not an opportunity for awe-inspiring pictures, but I’d be kidding myself. My intentions were good on that first trip, but I’m sure I was more concerned about getting amazing pictures than my impact on the place I was visiting. I simply didn’t know any better.

Until I did.

When we discover a new idea, we sometimes have to sift through a lot of misinformation and confusing chatter before we can use the new knowledge for good. As a white American woman who works in Africa and travels extensively, my introduction to the idea of the white savior complex was disturbing. I quickly developed a jaded attitude toward other white Americans volunteering in developing countries. Instead of feeling a camaraderie upon meeting a fellow white American overseas, I’d think—Ugh, what is she doing here? Probably taking 1,000 selfies with children dressed in rags and giving Americans a bad name. Of course, my attitude was a mere reflection of my own insecurities about how I was being perceived. 

And I wasn’t helping the situation…especially because there are countless white (and black, and Asian, and Muslim, et al.) Americans in Africa and other parts of the world doing important work, and because there are countless organizations within which important work needs to be done. Malayaka House is a perfect example. Yes, westerners come to Malayaka House to volunteer—sometimes for a week or two. Some are skilled volunteers who perform dental exams, administer flu shots, conduct literacy assessments, or build complex structures. But some just come to read and hang out with the kids. Are they doing more harm than good? Are they essentially abandoning the children when they leave?

Remember when you were in elementary school and your teacher told you to put on your critical-thinking cap? I think it’s time for many of us to again don that cap. Questioning everything we see and hear—regardless of the source—is key to a life well lived.

Here’s the thing, there are thousands of orphanages around the world. In many of these orphanages, kids are indeed living in squalid conditions. They are hungry, dirty, and neglected. Some homes purposely maintain such conditions in an effort to squeeze more money out of well-meaning volunteers. Spending time with these children for a week or two and then leaving will almost certainly create a pattern of hope and abandonment, hope and abandonment. This vicious cycle can be severely detrimental to the kids involved. But it’s the particular situation, not the volunteering, nor the reading of books, that is the problem.

Consider a different scenario.

In a place like Malayaka House, we work with small groups of volunteers, many of whom return annually. Even more importantly, there are multiple “constants” in the children’s lives—for example, the five aunties (local women who function as the kids’ mothers and who have been there since Malayaka House began 14 years ago). The children are not adopted out, rather they become each other’s brothers and sisters, a family. Emphasis is placed on education, vocational training, sports, and the arts. The children are confident and joyful, and they have big plans for their futures. In a place like this, spending a week or two reading with the children does not do more harm than good. Our kids, many of whom plan to work in tourism as adults (the number one industry in Uganda), are receiving an immense benefit from these interactions. They are learning how to converse with people from all cultures, nationalities, and lifestyles. This will set them apart and give them a significant advantage when it comes time to find employment in a country with rampant unemployment.

When we paint everything with the same broad brush, we do a disservice to ourselves and to others. The takeaway here should not be that reading to a child in Africa is bad, but that the circumstances of any situation should be carefully considered. This should apply to all things in life. You wouldn’t blindly walk into a job, a marriage, or a new home without asking a lot of questions. Volunteering shouldn’t be any different.

Whether overseas or in your own backyard, volunteer opportunities abound. The best way to get something out of your experience and to ensure that your beneficiaries are, in fact, benefitting, is to align yourself with organizations that you know are doing good work. Don’t just settle on the first place and book a ticket. Look for people in your own community who have done volunteer work and ask them about their experiences. Research the organization. The same philosophy should be applied to donating money. The best way to ensure that your hard-earned dollars are making an impact is to donate to organizations you know and trust.

Be humble. Go with the understanding that what you think you know may very well be wrong. Do not impose your ideas on others; learn from them. Maybe, just maybe, after you’ve been working in a specific country or with a particular cause for years, successful collaborations may begin taking shape. But don’t dive in thinking you can change the world. Years of observing and learning must occur first, and even then you’ll make countless mistakes. We all do. That’s another reason being humble is useful; when we fall, humility is a great protector of the psyche.  

If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Ask questions and listen to the answers. And make sure you are volunteering with a cause that you are passionate about.

Volunteering is not bad. Bad volunteering is bad. The conversation about the harm of voluntourism is an important one, and I’m glad it’s being had. But we should use this discussion to become more aware of potential problems and how to avoid them, not to condemn the act of volunteering as a whole.

By: Amy Carst

Amy Carst


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