On Volunteer Tourism Part II: Listen and Learn

Previously, I posted a video about the danger of a single story. In that video, Chimamanda Adichie tells her story and experience with the single story. This post is commentary connecting the single story to volunteer tourism.

So, why is it important to consider the “single story” in reflecting on the trend of volunteer tourism? Volunteer tourism is designed so the privileged Westerner can “give back” while he or she travels abroad. I am wary of such an industry that makes profits while the root issues often maintained and real people and communities in the developing world are exploited for the benefit and enjoyment of the foreigners.

There are some good positions to volunteer short or long-term. The distinction, I believe, is volunteer tourism focuses on the needs/dreams of a traveler (build your resume/CV, get discounts on your travel, have fun, do some good stuff ) whereas volunteering focuses on the needs of those served. Both may have good intentions, yet also the potential to be harmful, so I think people must be aware of their own motivations and privilege. People with good hearts want to do good things—and good things can be done—but this is damaging if we allow ourselves to create a single story about the people and places we intended to “help.”

There exists the same potential pitfall that can happen with charities wherever they exist—that the goal becomes not to eradicate the problem, rather to maintain the existence of the charity itself. This means your impact may only be small and short-term. But you’d never know, since you go back home yet the real problems still remain. Even worse, people and children can be exploited. This has been specifically documented with orphanage tourism in Cambodia. Al Jazeera has an investigation into the particular problem in Cambodia: Cambodia’s Orphan Business.

Young people from Western nations pay large amounts of money just to have some great experience abroad before they get on with their adult lives without fully realizing the consequences within the communities they intend to help. The orphanage tour business exploits this idealistic attitude, and exploits the vulnerable children.
There is also a report by UNICEF specifically about the vulnerability of children in Cambodia.

Before considering traveling a great distance to volunteer, I would suggest looking at the needs of your own community. You may already volunteer at local ministries/agencies/events. Good. Keep doing it. Global issues are not only abroad, they are local issues within our own communities as well. Making that connection is vital. Even though individuals may be aware of issues within their own country, I believe the popularity of volunteer tourism displaces genuine needs locally and globally with colonialist attitudes.

Colonialist behavior perpetuates the idea that those from the developed world have a moral obligation to fix the developing world. Good intentions can be damaging when they involve the Western idea being superior to that of the other. This attitude glosses over the poor, social issues, and the brokenness within the developed country; and oversimplifies the complex differences in cultural values, the challenges faced from years of colonization, corruption, and poverty within the developing country. Again, this is the danger of a single story.

From the video, Chimamanda Adichie, telling a story about meeting her college roommate, says,

My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. …What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

If your desire to do good is brought on by pity for those “poor” Africans (or insert another grouping of people), then this perpetuates the colonialist behavior.

Rather than pay large amounts of money for some third-party organization to arrange the tour for you, build relationships and learn about the place, the people, the culture, and the history; establish relationships with people and solid trustworthy organizations.

I haven’t said volunteering is inherently bad or that you shouldn’t do it. I know from my current position in North Sumatra that there is great benefit from generous donations and volunteers; however, we have partnerships that have been around for a long time, and communication is open.

So if you want to take a vacation, take a vacation; if you want to volunteer, volunteer. Volunteering abroad is not inherently bad, but I would encourage that the first steps be establishing relationship and learning—before and after you go—so that your whole attitude is about learning from your hosts, even more than it is about doing something for them. Ask the needs of the communities and listen to the stories of the people. We can move beyond the single story.

Bottom line: It’s about relationships. It’s about learning. Build relationships not your resume. Travel and learn something new. See the world through the eyes of another.

Next, I’ll share some more personal reflections.

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