The backlash to voluntourism hurts more than it helps

What’s a voluntourist to do?
What’s a voluntourist to do?
Image: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde
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When I was 17, I really wanted to go to Africa. To be honest, I’m not totally sure where the impulse came from. I suspect it had something to do with the fact that I was a politically liberal teenager who had just finished six years at a conservative Catholic school where “pro-life” George W. Bush was considered a moral hero—never mind the wars he started. Post-Catholic school and pre-Obama, I wanted to get as far away from America as possible.

And so I did. Back then, the word “voluntourism” didn’t exist, but the trip I went on would qualify under the label. My best friend’s church supported an orphanage in Kenya and we went for a two week trip with the vague purpose of helping others. I wasn’t even religious—six years of daily religion class had the opposite of its intended effect on the teenaged version of me—but an organized trip seemed like the most viable way I could get there. I worked weekend shifts as a restaurant hostess for the better part of my final year of high school to pay for it.

Looking back on the trip more than 10 years later—and through the lens of the voluntourism backlash that has become prominent since—my feelings are very mixed. Did I do things that, now, I shake my head at when I visit a developing country? Yes. Did I post pictures from the trip during the very early days of Facebook that I have since deleted? Yes. But did it change my otherwise sheltered view of the world, and thus how I’ve lived my live since? Profoundly.

This experience is why the video from a recent campaign from the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) left me feeling cold. Launched in November in partnership with the satirical Instagram account Barbie Savior, the campaign is intended to make people think more deeply about how they post on social media when volunteering or visiting a developing country. Usual tropes like positioning oneself as the savior of others, taking photos (especially of children) without informed consent, and depicting sick people are advised against.

While the written guidelines seem designed to be genuinely helpful, the made-for-sharing video seems the opposite. The cartoon-rendered Westerner in the video is depicted as a buffoon (and is weirdly, unnecessarily sexualized in the process). The clear message is that she flew to Africa not out of any genuine curiosity or desire to learn or help, but on a narcissistic mission to create content.

In an attempt to point out the faulty stereotypes Westerners often make about the developing world, the video makes some hugely cynical stereotypes about Western voluntourists themselves. Indeed, if the 17 year old me watched that video, I’m not sure I’d have wanted to go abroad at all, at the risk of being parodied by a snide Barbie on Instagram.

I do realize that Westerners privileged enough to fly to another country for personal growth are perhaps deserved of some criticism. (The need for this was spectacularly displayed last year by Scottish wife of US treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin Louise Linton, who penned a factually imaginative memoir of her time as the “skinny white muzungu with long angel hair.”) I also agree with the charge that there is very little meaningful social benefit a Western visitor can achieve in a two week visit to a country they’ve never been to before. Yet the lack of nuance in the voluntourism backlash is not only unfair to people who might have a genuine desire to broaden their worldview (bad news for cynics: these people exist), it works against the interests of our increasingly divisive world at large.

Since that first trip to Kenya, I’ve visited Africa more than a few times—as a semester study abroad student at the University of Cape Town, a tourist in at least a dozen countries, and a journalist, too. In those trips I’ve learned and thought much more deeply about how Africa has been systematically exploited by the West and how that legacy of exploitation—from imperialism to slavery to the humanitarian industrial complex—is the source of a very many problems today. I’ve also met and befriended many people who lived there, allowing me to take in viewpoints that aren’t second-hand or ripped from Western media headlines. The thing is, had I never been a voluntourist, I genuinely don’t believe these subsequent experiences would have happened.

I’m not suggesting taking potentially problematic trips is necessary to gain a broader viewpoint. But reductive critiques like SAIH’s video not only assume the worst of the tourists themselves, they rarely offer any alternatives for how to visit a country in a positive way. And frankly, in a world where the President of the United States doesn’t know Namibia from Nambia, we need Westerners to get out of their institutionally privileged boxes more than ever. Shaming them only reinforces the power structure that keeps Westerners oblivious of the legacy of oppression that the global South experiences.

Should people have better social media etiquette when they travel abroad? Yes, they should (and frankly, people should exhibit this at home, too). But when it comes to how we travel, I’m not sure that should be the center point of discussion. Instead of bemoaning rich kids who want to go to Africa, how about an honest discussion on how to travel to a developing part of the world in a responsible, not self-serving, and non-exploitative way.

This can include staying in locally-owned and sustainably run hotels, lodges, or game reserves and seeking out local guides who you ensure are fairly compensated. It means avoiding experiences (such as “township tours” or elephant rides) that perpetuate stereotypes or hurt local wildlife. It means expanding your horizons by using public transportation and eating and drinking in establishments frequented by locals, rather than places that cater to foreigners. And lastly, it means seeking out NGOs or community organizations that are run by local people familiar with the issues that affect their communities, rather than relying on Western NGOs to steer your course and view of a country.

There is no denying that the “white savior complex” that the voluntourism backlash puts front and center is a real phenomenon. But the best antidote is not shaming Westerners into staying home. It’s inviting them to come and realize just how much they have to learn.