In many cultures around the world young people are ingrained with social values that aim to embrace compassion. We are taught to comfort the sad, heal the sick and mourn loss. As we get older, those collective morals have a tendency to become less tolerant. We become prone to ignoring the calls to help, in exchange for something much easier – pity.
As someone who has volunteered abroad I often find myself embarrassed by my privilege and questioning my intentions. Westerners feel a call of motivation when it comes to servicing their skills overseas which leads me to wonder where the balance is in being a volunteer and being a tourist. Is it ever possible to be a volunteer without ulterior tourist motives? If not, is this really a bad thing?
Part of the problem in the way voluntourism has evolved is largely due to the vicious media cycle that under-represents the Global South. Unbalanced and biased coverage relentlessly tries to paint the picture of nations in crisis and of people who cannot help themselves. What’s worse is the way so many non-profit organizations have gone about promoting themselves as an echo of this chronicle. If an interested candidate wanted to volunteer abroad, a simple Google search for ‘volunteer abroad’ would present thousands of results catering to the best way to solve poverty – and how you (yes, you!) could be a part of all the life changing sequences for just $1000 a week! Let’s not forget that little deposit of $200 you have to put in (for administrative purposes of course). Surely in addition to all of that, you can afford your own flights, insurance and in-country costs?
Pity has been transformed from an emotion to inspire acts of compassion into an emotion of mere indulgence in sympathy. Western society is encouraged early on to believe in the promotion and attainability of the American Dream – a concept that reasons there is nothing we cannot achieve if we put our minds to it. Our upbringing and culture grooms us for efficiency and productivity which is extremely detrimental within the scope of development. We work tenaciously for approval and a sense of accomplishment so much so that it soon becomes obvious that our intentions have been misguided and deranged.
Voluntourism has become a business that relies on guilt and excessive finances to flourish. Dollars are quantified in exchange for that all too easy to market feel good sensation. Inherently, this problem of ‘them needing us’ and the ‘West and the Rest’ has evolved into a tangled narrative of narcissism driving the volunteer sector. What classifies as good intentions seems to have been left out of the debate on voluntourism as long as you have a savings account and travel insurance.
While there has been progress made in the way the west commodifies culture, there is still a business model that needs to be dissected. The volunteer community is embracive yet fragile. Too many times the power of a single conversation is dismissed in favour of building wells, schools and homes. The important questions are ignored or forgotten. We feel failure too quickly if our goals aren’t accomplished which is why it cannot be understated that the best thing you can offer a volunteer commitment is time.
When we give time to anything in our lives, we also make room for growth. This doesn’t necessarily mean progress, in fact, more often than not; time gives way to failure and learning from experiences. But it is what we do with these experiences that shape who we become and how we influence those around us. Voluntourism offers a multitude of ways to involve ourselves in social causes but we must approach these foundations with caution – we cannot afford to move too quickly on the basis of change. This is where time is our greatest asset; time complements progress in the same way success complements failure.
The truth is volunteering abroad is difficult and demands disappointment for growth. When we settle for justifying our experiences overseas with the intention to change the world – we’re kidding ourselves. We cannot expect progress overnight but we can disregard the fractured motivations that flood our volunteer sector and replace it with empathy.
Good intentions are not enough. To participate fully, actively and selflessly we must understand that we are not there to make change, but to learn. The most successful changes in any developmental context come from internal structures – especially within the last decade. While structural adjustment programs and conditional aid programs have failed in Asia and Africa, community implemented programs are succeeding.
Ultimately, as we look to engage with a cause or organization abroad, it is absolutely imperative that we change the discourse in dialogue that has transformed the Global South into a graveyard for our privilege.