Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a sudden upswing of articles and blog posts about volunteering, voluntourism, and narcissism. The content of many of these articles (though not all) suggests that volunteers who travel to developing countries to help out are doing so for Instagram likes or a nice cover photo.
My reply to that is….really? I traveled to Ghana for over a month, gave up internet (and, by extension Facebook and instagram) entirely (along with communication to anyone but my family), bathed with buckets of water from the river below the town, ate pretty much only starches, taught a class of 50 3, 4 and 5 year olds every week day, took multiple trips to Hohoe (about an hour from my village) to register one of my students at the Volta School for the Deaf and get her supplies, suffered sever constipation due to lack of certain nutrients in my diet, got ringworm fungus, and had a larvae nest in my back all so that I could get 95 likes on my cover photo (and some more on my profile pictures)?!
Now, I know it sounds like a lot, but it really wasn’t bad. I actually enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. more than any other experience I’ve had. And that’s why I did it. I enjoyed it. I enjoy making a difference, no matter the difficulties. Now, why would anyone question my motives in going to Ghana??
Well, I think people don’t really understand the difference between volunteering and voluntourism. Most websites and articles lump them as the same thing, but I think there’s a very important difference to acknowledge.
I volunteered. The sole purpose of me traveling halfway across the world was so that I could help others. I strongly identified withCompassionate Journeys‘ mission and I wanted to help them pursue their cause, visiting Ghana was a bonus.
Voluntourism, I believe, is different. Voluntourism is when you go on a trip, and on that trip, you happen to visit an orphanage, you stay for a day, two days, and leave. This is harmful because we are treating the orphanage, the poor village, wherever you happened to go, we are treating the poverty that so many people not only experience but live on a day-to-day basis as a tourist attraction. The photos you take with those nameless orphans, while they may be cute, are exploitive. You don’t know their names, you don’t know their stories, you brought them some toys and you think that is your good deed for the year and you’re done. And you got a photo with them. If you are someone who has done this, I’m not questioning your intentions. I’m sure that your motives were pure. I’m sure that you did not go in there intending for the impoverished citizens of whatever village you visited to be reduced to the backdrop of your new profile picture. But in the end, that’s all they are to you.
I posted quite a few photos from Ghana. But they were with my students whom I got to know very well over my time there. My friends posted pictures with Emmanuel, the grounds coordinator and our confidant while we were there. We also had pictures with Michael, a student our age, whom we befriended. These pictures were from Emmanuel’s birthday celebration that we all attended. We laughed, we cried, we danced with the subjects of our photos. We forged genuine relationships with them. When I posted photos with them, I was posting photos with Joanna, Paulali (not sure on spelling…), Kofi, Michael, Emmanuel, Joy, Mary, etc… not “orphan child #1 in Africa”.
I understand the other arguments against volunteering abroad are more about how we view ourselves and how the citizens of developing countries view us. I understand that it would be better for help for Ghana to come from within, but right now, it is not. Amanda Christmann Larson, the founder of Compassionate Journeys and someone I deeply admire, said that Compassionate Journeys is striving to give volunteers a better definition of what “helping” means. “For example,” she explained, “it doesn’t mean passing out a suitcase full of happy meal toys, or even t-shirts. Some things people don’t need, and others take away from the local economy. Also, we cannot be part of the forming of the attitude that white people come and give things away. But we can be part of the attitude that volunteers come and help in schools, teach skills that are needed to do better in life, and provide resources and services that give people a hand up instead of a hand out.”
Yes, a hand up instead of a hand out. That is what responsible volunteering is about. Compassionate Journeys volunteers sometimes aid with construction projects, but, for the most part, CJ hires Ghanaians for the building. CJ is currently finishing up a boarding home for rescued child slaves (child slavery is a huge problem in Ghana that the government turns a blind eye to, and the citizens are forced into due to extreme poverty) the house mother and father will be Ghanaian. The house mother and father will be looked up to by the former child slaves, so I think it is very important that they are Ghanaian. You can’t be what you can’t see.
For the most part, volunteers come over to teach English. And that makes sense, because as native English speakers we can offer students skills that their teachers, who are native tribal language speakers, cannot (sidenote: in Ghana, if you want to continue on to even high school, you have to be proficient in English). We are not replacing the Ghanaian teachers, but supplementing certain lessons to enrich students’ learning. Volunteers also come for teacher training to implement some western strategies for maintaining classroom balance. Again, this is not about “white people knowing best” but empowering Ghanaians to do their best.
The one argument I am absolutely sick of hearing is, “there are so many problems in the US! Why not just volunteer here?!” Is no one else sick of this narrative? Absolutely, we have so many issues here in America and I am all for working to solve those issues. But just because we have problems here, doesn’t mean we should ignore issues in the international community. I know that I’m going to sound like a complete hippie here, but borders are so arbitrary. Why are we confined to these lines that men have drawn? Why can’t I leave them to help without being attacked for not looking within these BS, arbitrary lines? We hear this argument for volunteering, we hear it for international aid, we hear it for adoption. “So many American kids need homes!” Yeah, they do. No one can argue with you on that one. And the solution to developing nations’ orphan problem is not to export every orphan to a western country, ideally they could stay with their birth parents or be adopted by a family in their home country. But again, that’s just not how it is working right now. We should all be trying to come up with solutions to reform international adoption, not condemning those who choose it. And it works the same way with international volunteering.
I didn’t go to Ghana for Facebook likes, as you’ve hopefully already inferred. I encourage each and every one of you to volunteer internationally if you have the means and desire to. Going abroad to volunteer is not a requirement to be a good person. You can help from wherever you are, if you don’t have the money to go, or if you are morally opposed, or if you simply would rather help from home. But please, please, don’t use borders or narcissism as an excuse to stay at home and chide people who go abroad to help while simultaneously ignoring the problems developing countries face.