Voluntourism: Westerners playing saviour is dangerous to all

By Lebogang Mokoena

Volunteering is a common resort for youth to gain international work and life experience. While many intend to volunteer based on several reasons such as taking gap years and enhancing their curriculum vitae, some go into voluntary services with genuine aims to “serve communities” and to simply give back. Yet, despite the intended good that volunteering should be giving participants and communities, the growing practice of youth from developed countries going to developing countries to volunteer (sometimes also with the aim of doing some personal travelling and sightseeing and therefore also called “voluntourism”) can do serious harm.

There are several flaws alongside the positive aspects about volunteering services. And the lack of critical reflection can create double standards and an industry which fails to understand its own consequences.

I am an alumni volunteer and I participated in the South to North volunteering programme. The programme is basically an exchange programme, an African volunteer (in this case, me), takes on voluntary service in Northern Europe (in my case Germany to be precise) and at the same time, a Western scholar or volunteer is placed in an African country, or another developing country such as Peru, Colombia, India or Ecuador, for instance.

Even though there is a sense of ‘equality’ when it comes to the programme (two people from two different places swap countries and volunteer to gain valuable life experience; the reality is far from this). In this context, the portrayal of Africa and western volunteers “playing saviour” is an important issue that needs to be examined.

But first, some background. According to a 2014 report by NPR, volunteers are predominantly women and range between the ages of 20 to 25. According to the report, over 1.6 million volunteer tourists “are spending about $2 billion each year”. A report by The Guardian recently addressed some of the growing concerns around this ‘unregulated industry’ worth billions of pounds and states that “in the UK alone, 85 organisations place 50,000 volunteers overseas every year. The majority of these organisations are for-profit travel agencies charging high fees to their customers”.

In my case, with the South to North programme, many of the volunteers either go to Africa, Asia or South America. On the African continent volunteers most often go to Ghana, South Africa, Morocco, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, or Uganda. Other popular destinations include Zambia, Madagascar, Malawi and Ethiopia. 38% of the South to North volunteers come to Africa and volunteer for a period of 2 to 4 weeks while others volunteer for up to 9 months.

One of the consequences of the amount of westerners volunteering in developing countries is the spread of misleading bias and misinformation about communities, cultures, lifestyles and marginal images of “they and us”. This is no new trend, given the continuous images created by international media about the African continent over the centuries.

In a study by Megan Smith titled ‘The Cost of Volunteering: Consequences of Voluntourism’ published in 2015, she argues that voluntourism in fact deepens social inequalities and strengthens cultural boundaries. And that even though voluntourism may be “attractive for countries or areas facing economic instability”, the volunteers more often than not, originating from wealthier countries is problematic and has unintended consequences.
One of the many ways in which the power dynamics play out on the global stage is the use of social media, an everyday action which speaks volumes about this power imbalance.

We are now in a digital era where westerners can take and share images and selfies of backgrounds that are one dimensional and without context. They take photos with impoverished children and devastated communities to share on their social media pages to showcase their version of hardship. It goes beyond just images, they write about Africa in less informed ways. I do understand that volunteers have a right to subjective views and expressions. But, what can these volunteers possibly learn about sensitivity, about humanity, about the complexity of the African continent? There are simply too many stories written from a privileged point of view, condescending narratives which devalue the fundamental goals of volunteering and question the motives of participants. Yes, Africa has challenges.

But the role of volunteering is not to perpetuate stereotypes about developing countries.

Where I was based during my exchange, in countries such as Germany and Switzerland (places where these “voluntourists” are often from), one is not allowed to take photos of children at their kindergarten, or other social institutions, valuing the need to children’s privacy more than the volunteer’s emotional outlets. So, is it not imperative to apply the same privacy in other countries? Do voluntourists not take these lessons with them? It is important for westerners to respect people’s privacy under which they live. Included too is respecting conditions and circumstances under which citizens live.

The problematic nature of voluntourism has become so commonplace that parody accounts have been set up to poke fun at the ignorance of westerners. The Barbie saviour campaign on Instagram is based on the “white saviour complex”. That is, volunteers portraying the communities they work in negatively, and approaching voluntary services as projects where they can ‘save’ Africa, essentially mocking people who make their volunteering trips all about themselves.

But the ‘white saviour complex’ does not only come from individuals, it is in fact a selling point, promoted by the very organisations that receive and send volunteers. Their unregulated criteria of selecting volunteers to work in sensitive communities is highly problematic. Volunteers are placed as “teachers”, for instance, a title that immediately creates a power balance between the volunteer and the community; the former positioned as having the knowledge and power, the latter as the silent receiver, a community which has nothing to teach the ‘teacher’.

In many cases, abused children and orphans are forced to interact with volunteers who are sent to work in social and psychological related work places. So much can go wrong in these circumstances. Imagine Grade 1 children being taught by a 17 or 18-year old volunteer?

Children need teachers who are trained to do the job well. In Europe or the United States, volunteers cannot be placed as teachers or social workers. Particularly without necessary qualifications, skills and training. These sectors are treated as sensitive sectors, where the services have standards of expectations and outcomes. While in developing countries, with an exception of a few countries, volunteers can simply allude to “I am teaching in Africa”, “I am a counsellor in Africa” statements without the expertise to do so. The double standards are not just condescending but downright dangerous.

It is important to note that volunteers can only help to a certain extent and changing the world is generally a long-term, complex and collective effort.

It is important for volunteers to take cognisance of the need to respect and present communities in ways that inform others factually without degrading or insulting anyone.

These situations could be improved if organisations use the same standard procedures to place volunteers at appropriate social institutions as they would in their home countries as well as understanding the limitations that volunteers have. The awareness by host organisations abroad about privilege, the saviour complex, poverty porn and power dynamics should play a big role in preparing, teaching and helping volunteers not to fall in the same traps.

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Contributors

Lebogang Mokoena

Lebogang is a humanitarian at heart, a self-driven female skater, with a dream to living life probing and crafting words with ink. She graduated with honours in Journalism at UJ. The first degree she pursued was a BA in Communication Science from the University of South Africa (UNISA), with African Politics as her second major. […]

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