When I was 19, I spent two months in Rwanda. I taught English and had a very small role in providing job training for young adults. While I was there I did take pictures with children and maybe a few of them made their way to Facebook. Nonetheless, I came back with many ideas and opinions about development.
I preached those thoughts to a speaker at a conference at Harvard the following Fall. I flat out told a CNN Hero that his operation in Honduras wasn’t sustainable because college kids were paying to fly out and build orphanages when the money could be better spent. Apparently, my experience flying to a remote area to volunteer qualified me to tell others that it wasn’t the best thing to do.
Since then, I’ve had a change of heart. And here is why:
During another extremely privileged travel adventure, I found myself in Ghana. I did a “homestay” for a night in a small village. I paid 30 dollars for the evening and got food, a place to sleep, and laughed with the adorable kids. I received a service, and in exchange the host family received money. It was voluntourism and I knew it. I was literally handing them money for the thing I wanted most, memories. I didn’t need a bracelet or a hand woven basket; I wanted the pictures.
The world has globalized and there is very little we can do about it. Ideally, every society would be self-sustaining and have their own industries. Sadly, that isn’t how it has turned out. The world has been divided into sectors (information, production, agriculture, etc.) with the minority of rich nations benefiting from the poorer majority. Countries all over the world, especially in East Africa, are being exploited for their resources with most local people seeing only violence from the exportation of their oil, metals, and minerals.
And so, realistically, what is the alternative for low-income nations in terms of new economic development? We can (and should!) invest in education, but what is the education going to do without viable industries in those communities?
Voluntourism seems to be a way that less developed nations feel they can participate, and gain, in the global economy. And they should be allowed to do so. If someone wants to take a white woman’s money in exchange for holding their babies, who are we to tell them they cannot? Citizens are capable of weighing their options and deciding for themselves if they want to open their homes or businesses to visitors, and whether those interactions will benefit their community.
The aforementioned hero, who so kindly talked with me about my “sustainability issues,” explained that he hosts volunteers because it provides them with a personal interest in the issue, and they will raise more money for the project if they see it with their own eyes. They will come back from Honduras and continue to talk about how they can help. It is a long-term investment.
Rather than cutting out voluntourism all together, we need to change our attitudes towards travel and service. We need to know that we are not saviors, and that people all over the world are as capable and deserving as we are. Importantly, these kinds of realizations have come from travel. Though past voluntourists may differ in their views, they have all had the chance to reflect on if they made a difference, and try to improve their practices for the future.
We must not demonize people for wanting to travel. It seems a little hypocritical to be like “I did it, and you shouldn’t.” Traveling is fun and exciting, and that is part of why we want to do it. If I can accept that going to Rwanda was as much about me as it was about them, then I don’t have to play the role of a savior. I can just be an interested global citizen.