I remember it well, these were the best Sunday services ever. A group of intrepid, breathless volunteers would carry slide carousels filled with images of far away lands, tell stories of hapless souls they saved, and give a final tally of their accomplishments.
It was amazing to watch.
Every single one of those souls saved evidently represented a jewel earned in their heavenly crown. I used to close my eyes and imagine how large their tiaras would be… and how mine would likely resemble a plain headband in comparison.
Thing was, my family wasn’t wealthy. These excursions cost a pretty penny. Hence, my summers were spent bike riding while theirs included exciting adventure.
So, imagine my surprise when this phenomenon, now known as voluntourism, has grown exponentially and is quite a profit center for various global companies. It’s also undergoing a bit of scrutiny. Even The Onion has gotten in on the act.
ST. LOUIS—Calling the experience “completely transformative,” local 22-year-old Angela Fisher told reporters Tuesday that her six-day visit to the rural Malawian village of Neno has completely changed her profile picture on Facebook
As The Onion so aptly pointed out, photographs are often a catalyst fueling these adventures. From Pacific Standard Magazine:
It was the photographs posted by other students that inspired me to go on my first overseas medical mission. When classmates uploaded the experience of themselves wearing scrubs beside adorable children in developing countries, I believed I was missing out on a pivotal pre-med experience. I took over 200 photos on my first international volunteer mission. I modeled those I had seen on Facebook and even pre-meditated photo opportunities to acquire the “perfect” image that would receive the most Likes.
Over time, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the ethics of those photographs, and ultimately left my camera at home. Now, as an insider, I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.
This article seems to nail one of the criticisms of voluntourism well:
VOLUNTOURISM IS ULTIMATELY ABOUT the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit.
Conde Naste has even penned a special report covering this topic covering:
A growing number of travelers are volunteering on their vacations, but they sometimes end up doing more harm than good. Dorinda Elliott report builds a house in Haiti and reports on the rewards—and risks—of lending a hand away from home
This is a fascinating read, one that grapples with some of the more subtle aspects of this issue.
I don’t know many people who don’t want to lend a helping hand. However, I think it’s useful to engage in some premium pondering before embarking on a mission that may do more long term harm than short term good.
There are a number of reputable ways to do this… but research is in order.