This week, as I started mining the web for come culturtwining goodness, not much caught my eye… except for some blogs and articles published over the course of the last couple of months about this increasingly polemical topic which goes by many names. I like “voluntourism”, although feel free to mentally replace it with whichever term feels most appropriate to you.
Having grown up at the receiving end of such effort, and having spent a fair bit of my adult life engaging with groups that fit this category, I have lots of thoughts and want to throw out a few.
First thought: cross-cultural contact is a good thing. I firmly believe that it is good for us to interact with people who are different from us. Such interaction contributes to the richness of our own experiences of life, of spirituality, and of humanity. I say this because I think many of the commenters I’ve read made a fair point that it seems odd to travel halfway around the world to help people, when there is plenty of need right next-door. I think they make a fair point, but I also think it’s comparing apples and oranges. Traveling and meeting different people is a good thing, in and of itself. (No, five-star guided tours don’t do the trick. Meeting professional tour guides doesn’t count.)
Second thought: cross-cultural interaction is a two-way street. Most debates on voluntourism focus on the travelers and what they gain from the experience, or they focus on the receivers and what they gain or don’t gain from the experience. I don’t want to repeat those arguments, because a couple of good articles explained some of those wealth-dynamics well. Click HERE, and HERE! These articles made good points, but I think they failed to mention one other important observation: people receiving the voluntourists ALSO enjoy meeting new people! And they enjoy meeting people who are different from them. For many of my friends, receiving a person from a different country in their home is a thrill second only to the opportunity to visit the other country themselves. As I read these articles, I tried to think of examples when “receivers” were irritated or bitter by the behaviour of the voluntourists. I thought of a few, but their irritation was due to a specific event or issue, not to the encounter itself. Everyone I know who has been a so-called “beneficiary” of voluntourism, has appreciated getting to meet different people. The relational benefits go both ways.
I have to interject a caveat here, though. There have been a few exposés lately discussing how damaging voluntourism to orphanages is by creating short-term affective bonds then breaking them, or even worse, creating orphans just to receive more visitors. Cross-cultural interaction is good, yes. It’s two-way, yes. But it is also ethically sensitive and must be approached with great sensitivity.
Third thought: I believe that the inherent unfairness in voluntourism is that certain countries send people and certain countries receive people. Almost as a rule. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a Bolivian missions trip to the U.S., or a group of Syrian volunteers going to work in the UK for a couple of months. But I suspect you’d have a huge queue of Bolivians and the Syrians lining up to do that if there were any reasonable chance they’d be allowed a VISA into those countries, not to mention afford the travel costs. A big disadvantage of voluntourism that I haven’t seen mentioned in the online debates is that it is a stark reminder of the inherent unfairness of global politics and economics, whereby some people in the world have complete freedom of movement and others don’t. My passport means I can be a tourist or a volunteer in just about any country I choose. My Brasilian friends’ passports allow them to go to some countries and not others. My Palestinian friends don’t even have passports. I don’t think this is fair.
Fourth thought: Let’s not fool ourselves that voluntourism contributes to a better world, materially speaking. Sure there are stories of doctors doing amazing feats or a newly drilled well irrigating miles of farmland. I once translated for two Indian doctors doing cataract surgeries for refugees in Lebanon for 1 week. We did 70 surgeries in less than 4 days. 70 people who couldn’t see can now see. This is cool. But Lebanese doctors know how to do cataract surgeries, and a lot of us took a week off of work to support the Indians, we stayed in quite a decent hotel, airfare was expensive, and hence carbon footprint big, etc. etc. etc. And believe me, this was a very good example of voluntourism; very few trips can claim such an awesome payoff. So, almost always, the material good done by voluntourism is outweighed by the material costs. Thousands of dollars for airfare to deliver a box of used clothes? It’s cheaper to buy the clothes locally or ship them. What about religious impact? Same thing: if a church wants to expand in a region, it will likely be much more efficient if the church supports people who speak the language to do the evangelising. That’s not what voluntourism is about. It’s about relationships and it’s about learning. It’s about a depth of culturtwining that cannot be measured in practical goods.