Hey college girls, let’s go ahead and not help the poor kids in Africa. As awesome as it is to see your sunburnt self, donning a tribal wrap skirt with an armful of orphan on Facebook, let’s be real.
I have the travel bug and desire to change the world as much as the next 20-something, but what I’m going to urge you to refrain from is those ever so tempting volunteer/safari/African/Asian/South American experiences that are being advertised on campus as an “alternative” to the traditional spring or summer break, all for the low price of one to five thousand dollars. I’m not saying that people should stop providing aid to these developing regions, or even that they shouldn’t travel there; I’m just saying we oughtn’t confuse the two.
Local businesses in these developing regions would love for you to come pay them a visit and then continue to pay, with your American dollars, for local hotels, restaurants and souvenirs. You’re benefitting them by truly experiencing all said nation has to offer in hospitality, while simultaneously pumping tourism money into the local economy. It’s a win-win.
Or, for a selfless alternative, donate that thousand dollars you would have spent on your airfare and rugged-chic Patagonia back pack to organizations such as WHO or Feeding Children Everywhere who not only have systems in place to ensure that the money is used to do the most good, but also keep it out of the wrong hands.
But please, don’t be the girl who begs money off her parent’s friends to support her “mission” to go build a school/well/orphanage in Africa, and then clutter our news feeds with your “eye opening,” “humbling,” and life changing” experiences… that you got in a week. My question is this: how much are you, a middle class, white, semi-athletic college sophomore going to be a help in a heavy construction job in sub-Saharan Africa? Would it not be better to use those funds to make a more profound difference? Couldn’t you send that money to an international development charity that hires skilled laborers in the communities it works in to build that school in about half the time, while simultaneously reducing the local unemployment rate? No new profile pick with the street kids who schooled you in soccer though.
Guilt trip aside, before you make the decision to take part in a “voluntourism” trip, I would like to draw attention to the very real exploitation that occurs as a result of this ever growing market. Gangs in nations such as Cambodia have been found to take control of orphanages, while intentionally keeping them, along with the children living there, in very poor condition. This is to lure in the pitying wallets of visiting westerners looking to help. An organization called “Tourism Concern” in the United Kingdom makes it their mission to seek out the illegitimate institutions and point them out to the public to insure that the travelling we are doing is ethical. By insuring that our charitable donations are directed towards legitimate humanitarian organizations, we can rest knowing that we aren’t part of the problem.
Another below the surface consideration that needs to be examined is the psychological effect these trips have on both the givers and receivers. To those receiving the aid, many of which are young and impressionable, wealthy white westerners are viewed as heroes, bringing in money, gifts and supplies. While it is great that people who normally would go without are able to have these things, we are teaching the young people in these communities to look up to foreigners who were simply born into these fruitful situations, instead of the leaders in their own communities that are working tirelessly to make improvements.
These are the men and women they should be aspiring to be. Gifts are not sustainable; they’re only lessening the problem for now, but are not a long-term solution. Those making the most difference are the groups that go in with a vision for the future. They work with the local governments and leaders to construct dynamic solutions to the underlying issues that are keeping the communities down. So yeah, if you have a patent for an innovative clean water well, and a plan to teach locals how to construct them, sign yourself up. When it comes down to it, there’s simply not a pediatrician doling out cheap vaccines on every corner, or deaf education teachers in every school, so if you do in fact have tangible skills that could truly make a difference in the developing world, this argument doesn’t apply to you.
Coming from a person who has in fact experienced a “voluntourism” trip, I’d like to impart that the feeling the “giver” has isn’t so great either. When you’re looking around at these communities of people who work harder than you ever have in your life; all to keep the thatch roofs over their heads and enough foods in their babies bellies, you realize you have no right whatsoever to come in from America to play savior. I, just through the random chance of the universe was born to white upper-middle class parents in suburbia USA. I’m no better than these people, and the flood or gratitude I got for simply being luckier than they, I do not deserve.