Voluntourism has always been a controversial buzzword. The word evokes caricatures of bumbling, over privileged twenty-somethings mindlessly trampling through poverty-stricken communities in Africa, crushing anything in their path while the poor locals scream helplessly in dismay.
Meanwhile, the fat cat volunteer organisations sit back, cigar in mouth, counting mounds of cash and cackling menacingly as their sinister plans come to fruition.

With an industry worth $2 billion annually it’s not hard to see why voluntourism leaves a sour taste in mouths. Billions have been made commercializing people’s suffering, there is no getting around that. You only have to look at the websites of some of the large volunteer organisations to see that poverty porn sells.

Pictures of nameless brown children accompany holiday like itineraries centred on volunteering in orphanages, as though these children are animals in a zoo. Of course this tone is abhorrent. That’s why to begin with I was encouraged to see that people were starting to take a stand and questioning the ethical implications of international volunteering.


But now we are suddenly flooded by an influx of “experts” telling us that international volunteering is wrong and we should stop doing it. Week after week a new article or blog post appears, highlighting the pitfalls of unsustainable aid or how volunteer fees could be better spent on community development. But by far the most common theme, or perhaps the one with loudest voice, is the naivety and misjudgment of the Caucasian volunteers.

I count myself among the millions of naïve western voluntourists. Thankfully I am now reformed, but when I decided to volunteer in a Kenyan orphanage I was nauseatingly immature, inexperienced and idealistic. Nevertheless, in the eyes of most of these articles, I am not and never have been a part of the problem.

Not because my contribution to the orphanage was more significant than any other volunteer (it wasn’t) and not because I chose a responsible company to organise my experience (I didn’t). I am not a part of the problem, simply because I am not white.

I would hate to needlessly make this a colour thing, but unfortunately these articles tend to not beat around the bush when it comes to explicitly highlighting that the volunteers they have a problem with are the white ones. And they are not even subtle about it, this is not simply a case of showcasing images of only pale skinned volunteers.

By prefixing the term voluntourist with ‘White’ or ‘Caucasian’ they would have you believe that the pitfalls of international volunteering are intrinsically linked to the volunteers’ whiteness. What I find most peculiar out of all of this though, is that the majority of the voluntourism cynics who tell us that Africa doesn’t want white western volunteers, also happen to be white westerners themselves.

Maybe this isn’t a revolution born out of social injustice as the detractors of international volunteering claim, but rather just an exaggerated and more complex display of the very thing they are complaining about – white guilt. Could this be a case of wanting to be seen to do the right thing, while disregarding the voice of the very people they are claiming to be advocates for.

In fairness, the majority of tourists who volunteer in developing countries do happen to be Caucasian, which in turn means that the majority of ineffective placements involve white volunteers. But this is merely a representation of the ethnic makeup of Western countries.

There is no correlation between the colour of someone’s skin and their ability or motivation to help communities in need. So why is the colour of the volunteer being mentioned at all? They cry neo-colonialism and white saviour complex, as though a British-born, brown-skinned, third generation Jamaican/Irish volunteer (like myself) cannot be equally as misguided.

They argue over what is best for Africa like she is a wide-eyed child. Not a vast, vibrant, complex continent and the birthplace of humanity. Do these authors really not see the irony in protesting the insensitivity of volunteers, while speaking on behalf of communities without asking what they want?

At twenty-five, I do not claim to be an expert in international aid and development, nor do I have decades of experience in the field. What I do have are countless interactions with East African leaders of social initiatives. I also have the humility to know that they understand how to help their own communities better than I ever will or ever could. And what I can tell you is that not a single one of them has ever mentioned white saviour complex to me.

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Many of them have mentioned the burden of ineffective placements, where volunteers are unable contribute anything of substance to their project. They have spoken of their frustrations with the lack of communication with large Western volunteer organisations. And of course there is no question that orphanage tourism is repellent and needs to be stopped. But I can tell you that, without a doubt, there is still a demand for western volunteer assistance in African communities. How do I know this? Not from reading countless books on issue, but simply from asking those I want to help.

Take for instance Esther, the founder of Malindi Women’s Aids Fighters, a small social enterprise that focuses on removing the stigma of HIV in her local community. Esther is a small but commanding woman, whose age you can’t pin down because she radiates energy and life.

After being diagnosed with HIV herself in the eighties, Esther uses her relentless positivity to inspire and empower fellow sufferers in her community. She offers everything from companionship and hope, to a stream of income for families who have been plagued by the stigma attached to HIV.

Under the beating Kenyan sun, Esther and I sit on plastic garden chairs outside her makeshift house/office. We are surrounded by a sea of beautiful handmade crafts, which Esther sells to tourists in order to fund her organisation. I listen intently as Esther tells me her story, I am completely struck by her unassuming courage and humanity. The local village children gather around, hypnotized by the strange brown Mzungu. I find myself looking at Esther in the same way the children look at me, in complete awe.

I notice how Esther’s eyes light up and her body fills with electricity as she tells me about her dream to grow her organisation and eventually open a care centre for her beneficiaries. The problem is she is not a business woman. She has never been taught about profit margins and marketing, but she is desperate to learn. Should I not send a Business student looking for real world experience Esther’s way – just in case they colonise the place?

Persuading Westerners not to volunteer in developing communities is not the solution. In fact, that stance is lazy and irresponsible. Instead we should be educating young people on how to choose the right volunteer organisation and how to volunteer with purpose, while actively encouraging philanthropy and cross cultural understanding.

Yes, there is no question that the international volunteering industry as a whole needs to have more regulations and transparency, but let’s not make this a case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. When done correctly, the experience can be a beautiful exchange of culture, ideas and creativity that is equally as rewarding for everybody involved.

The efficacy of volunteer placements comes down to the practices of the volunteer organisations. They should be held accountable for measuring the impact of placements, adequately preparing volunteers and setting achievable goals, instead of feeding young people vague tales of “saving Africa”.

But most importantly, we need to drop the egotistical battle to be viewed as the most virtuous and begin by having conversations, rather than delivering lectures. Africa has her own voice, it’s about time we started listening.

Photo Credits: http://connorandkellymarchforth.com/ 

SAIH Norway

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