How voluntourism perpetuates a dangerous saviorship complex
When Pippa Biddle traveled to Tanzania on a service trip with her high school, she was buoyed by the expectation that she would change a person’s life. The reality, however, was far different — and far more sobering.
“While I was invariably better because of my trip, I couldn’t say the same for the places I was going,” Biddle said, reflecting on the service trip years later.
Biddle’s experience is emblematic of the growing phenomenon of voluntourism: the combination of traditional volunteering with tourism in which aspiring volunteers — driven by the desire to do good and change the world — travel to another country to engage in service work. The building blocks of voluntourism are fairly straightforward — voluntourism organizations target do-gooders by advertising trips to regions that are often underdeveloped, impoverished and in need of basic necessities. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the most frequent types of volunteer activities include fundraising, tutoring or teaching, food service and general labor or transportation.
Voluntourism is a booming industry, attracting about 1.6 million people and amounting to about $2 billion per year, according to the 2008 study by consultant company Tourism, Research and Marketing. According to a study by the same group, a majority of volunteers are women as well as young adults aged 20 to 25. The study also points to a rise in the number of high school students volunteering abroad. The most popular regions for voluntourists include Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia — often focusing on the poorest countries.
Despite the seemingly innocent and laudable intentions of volunteers, a bevy of reports on this burgeoning industry have shown that the end result of these volunteer trips leaves much to be desired. For instance, a review on the impact of orphanage voluntourism — in which volunteers visit local orphanages and form bonds with the children there — found that interactions between volunteers and orphans often leave the children with psychological attachment issues.
The problems with orphanage voluntourism speak to the fundamental issue with voluntourism itself: that sending predominantly white, young people from Western countries to poor nations to satiate their desire to change the world comes at the expense of the communities they are attempting to help. The act of volunteering then becomes more about the volunteer and their own personal experiences rather than the actual well-being of the local people. And while wanting to improve a community and enact positive change is, on its face, a pure moral intention, the voluntourism industry can transform intentions like this into actions that may not be as beneficial to the local community as expected.
Many of the issues with voluntourism lie in the volunteer industry itself, and the ways organizations capitalize on the “do good” philosophy and the strong desire to change the world to boost their profits. Biddle said just having these organizations operate within an economic environment that prioritizes profits is an issue.
“Obviously companies have a bottom line, they need to make money,” Biddle said. “Even nonprofits have to, at some point, be financially fluid. Whether that’s through income, through a product, or income through donations, money has to come in so these things can stay afloat.”
For the volunteer organizations, their flow of income is predominantly reliant on getting customers — the very people who want to change the world — to buy the “product” of changing a community or a child’s life. Yet in this transaction between the companies and the volunteers, the community receiving the help almost becomes an afterthought, as Biddle notes that the people on the ground do not become stakeholders in the company. And because these volunteer companies make money from the volunteers and not necessarily the communities being helped, Biddle said the satisfaction of the volunteer gets prioritized.
“That is a very, very clear conflict of interest, where the people they are supposed to be helping are not the people they have to make happy,” she said. “The people they have to make happy are their clients. And so every decision … is based on what makes their clients happy.”
One of the most effective methods volunteer organizations employ to entice potential customers is aggressive marketing. For example, the company Projects Abroad advertises that voluntourism will help “to implement long-term development.” Another popular volunteer organization, GoVoluntouring, lists the following as some of the benefits of voluntourism: improving local communities or the environment, helping others in need, fulfilling your sense of self, becoming a global citizen, spreading happiness and caring and improving your resume.
Biddle said much of this positive language emphasizing the desire to change the world was a driving force in promoting the service trip to Tanzania she participated in.
“The language used around it, very much, was, ‘You’re going to save the world. You’re going to save some children. You’re going to hold some babies. You’re going to change your life,’” she said.
Of course, what this advertising does is cloak one of the harsher realities of changing the world: that solving a community’s problems is not as simple as building a school or teaching English for a short period of time. Change, in reality, is more complex than the oversimplified story promoted by the industry — it does not occur through one specific action or even overnight, but oftentimes over a long period, through a sum of many actions as well as inactions.
Author Natalie Jesionka addresses this deception in her article for The Muse, titled “The Reality of Voluntourism and the Conversation We’re Not Having.”
“And that’s the hard part to confront; that change happens slowly and often banally, without the ‘lives are forever changed’ that the industry sells us.”
Part of the attraction of volunteering abroad is the wholesome idea that a person with no specific skillset can improve an entire community through their actions. However, this introduces what Noelle Sullivan, an anthropology professor at Northwestern University, sees as a fundamental moral problem at the heart of voluntourism.
“We flatten every place that we assume to be poor into a place that’s so poor that any help is better than no help at all,” she said. “And that really helps people from more privileged backgrounds to sort of imagine themselves as a kind of helper beyond the capacity they would be permitted to go in their hometown.”
Another problem with voluntourism is the racial politics involved with attempting to help a community in another country. Given that a majority of volunteers are white, the optics of having predominantly white volunteer groups enter mostly impoverished areas that are made up of black and brown people perpetuates the white savior complex — the notion that white people, by virtue of their whiteness, are inherently tasked with “saving” the non-white masses. It is an idea that has been historically wielded to justify colonialism and has been further reinforced in Western culture throughout centuries, from Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” to Western frontier movies that depict benevolent American explorers civilizing “brutish” Native Americans.
Biddle said the white savior complex within volunteering is further exacerbated when volunteers cannot speak the language of the community they are serving or when they enter these areas unskilled.
“They’re going into these places, and there’s a level of assumption of [their] right to be there,” she said.
These inequalities become worsened by the fact that saving the world requires some level of economic privilege, given that the price tags on these trips can range from a couple hundred dollars to a thousand dollars. Biddle said the combinations of racial and economic privileges can make for an imbalanced power structure between the volunteers and the communities they enter.
“That immediately sets a tone for interaction that is unequal, where the power is not in the hands of the locals,” she said. “The voluntourists are allowed to run roughshod over these places just because they have this name tag … that says, ‘I’m here to help’ — and so they can do whatever they want.”
Biddle said that while many white people often become defensive when discussing their racial privilege, it is pertinent to discuss these racial issues plaguing the industry as well as the breadth of historical context that shapes these conversations.
“We have to remember race is a part of this, it has always been a part of this,” she said. “Acting out of neocolonialist attitudes is a very real thing.”
Voluntourism can come in different, more niche forms as well, such as medical voluntourism. And while the fundamental, institutional flaws are similar, there are specific problems with medical voluntourism that can make the consequences more destructive.
In medical voluntourism, volunteers with a background in medicine or healthcare travel to foreign, often poor, countries to assist in local medical facilities and their operations. Despite the focus on medical practice, most voluntourism organizations will allow volunteers to join these programs regardless of their experience in medicine. Projects Abroad, a popular voluntourism organization, allows anyone over the age of 16 to participate in its medical volunteering programs, with no additional requirements. And International Volunteer HQ offers medical volunteer abroad programs for any person, regardless of their qualifications.
“I can’t think of any form of medical volunteering that I’ve come across that is, at least in terms of unskilled labor, at all helpful,” Northwestern University professor Noelle Sullivan said.
With a focus on global health and medical anthropology, Sullivan has studied medical volunteering in Tanzania since 2011.
During her study, Sullivan said, she has seen medical volunteers — most of whom were not medical professionals and were inexperienced — perform medical procedures they were not skilled to do, such as delivering babies or helping with surgeries.
Sullivan said this attitude stems from a presumption that Western medicine is inherently superior to other forms of medical practice.
“They still presume that they are somehow on a scale above what they see in place without ever asking why medicine is done in the way that it is in that place,” she said. “And so that justifies, for them, a lot of times pushing the local health professionals out of the way in order to practice medicine themselves.”
A primary contradiction within medical voluntourism is the assumption that a Westerner or another foreigner — particularly one who is not a medical professional and has no adequate medical experience — can assist a local community more than the locals can.
“If they needed people with no medical skills to go in and assist with another set of hands in a health facility, then anyone off the street is better equipped to do that than you as a foreigner,” Sullivan said. “They’re just infinitely more familiar with what’s going on.”
Perhaps one of the strongest forces fueling the medical voluntourism industry are colleges, graduate and professional medical programs that emphasize the importance of clinical experience. Sullivan said that because “clinical experience” is an ambiguous phrase, it can be easily applied to medical voluntourism trips.
To Sullivan, the common industry practice of sending medical volunteers to rural, impoverished areas or even regions that have suffered from a natural disaster is, ultimately, unsustainable and unhelpful.
“Nothing is sustainable about sending strangers every few weeks to provide care because everyone arrives knowing as little as the previous ones did when they arrived,” she said. “So they’re never there long enough to really be helpful.”
The issue with voluntourism is a two-fold problem — one being the manipulative practices of the entire industry and the other being the blind, noncritical desire to change the world on the part of the volunteer. Biddle says to even begin reforming voluntourism, attention must be focused on both the individual and the system.
“I don’t think the two can be done separately, I think that both have to be addressed simultaneously, because the industry only exists because there are customers, and there are only customers because the industry exists,” she said.
Biddle said one way to challenge and reform today’s voluntourism industry is for the people to demand change from the companies themselves.
“If we as consumers demand a different product, that product will be created,” she said.
With so much critique focused on the voluntourism industry, a new niche market has opened up for volunteer organizations that try to combat the harmful effects of the practice through programs that are different from the typical voluntourism experience. One such company attempting to grapple with the aforementioned problems is United Planet, an organization dedicated to fostering “cross-cultural understanding” and “addressing shared challenges to unite the world in a community beyond borders.”
While this jargon bears similarities to other traditional volunteer organizations, a representative from United Planet said its representatives make sure to emphasize the importance of understanding American values in the face of other cultures as well as being respectful of another culture’s traditions through pre-departure trainings.
“That’s pretty much a time where us and the Boston office sit down and really go over what it’s like to travel abroad, what it’s like to really immerse yourself in a new culture,” said Callie Roberts, international programs supervisor at United Planet. “To make sure people are open minded and respectful and flexible with any biases that they might have, conscious or unconscious.”
Roberts said one way the organization tries to grapple with the merits of voluntourism is by being honest with its potential volunteers about their role in the community. The organization’s motto — “Individually we are one drop, together we are an ocean” — reflects its vision for volunteering abroad.
“We always tell volunteers that you’re not going to change the world in the two weeks that you’re in Nepal, but you are really contributing to a community that needs any help that they can get,” Roberts said. “That’s the kind of small impact that really works.”
However, it is often the case that the well-intentioned desire to enact positive change gets lost within the profit-driven motives of voluntourism organizations. Changing the way voluntourism and volunteering operates will undoubtedly require a paradigm shift on the part of individuals and the greater system. And while critiques of this growing industry will likely not deter people from traveling abroad, Biddle said one way to move the practice in a better direction is to contribute more to the local economy.
“I think the greatest thing they can do — and for some reason it just doesn’t click for people — is buy local, stay local, spend local,” Biddle said. “And I think that it’s a big mental shift for people. It’s hard sometimes, people want to get their hands dirty. But guess what, you can get your hands dirty, you just don’t need to do it with the label ‘volunteer.’”
Celisa Calacal is a fourth-year journalism major who voluntarily excoriates Western imperialism and white saviorship. You can reach them a firstname.lastname@example.org.