The business of voluntourism

Roísín Phelan

An increasing number of students jet off each year to volunteer in third-world countries. Credit Róise McGagh

A young white teen struggles to balance as swarms of clamouring black children wrap themselves around her arms and legs.

A small girl who looks no more than four years old rests her smiling head beside the face of the teen, the stick like limbs clinging around her torso. Someone yells an order for everyone to look their way. There’s a quick, “three, two, one” and all seven small dark faces giddily turn, still holding a tight grip on the teen. There’s a bright flash and the moment is immortalised as a split second of pure joy, friendship and gratefulness forever.

The teen, named Rachel, is in Kenya, but there are many others like her across the developing world memorialising the exact same moment.

This image of poverty, and people, particularly children in need gaining joy from the presence of a Western white teen is one which has been sold to many students across Ireland.

Volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’  is the act of going abroad to volunteer. It is carried out most frequently by young, impressionable teens and adults, who want to do good. In 2015, 84 per cent of millennials who answered a survey carried out by Marrion Rewards Credit Cards from Chase said they would like to participate in voluntourism. According to research done by author Pippa Biddle, for decades voluntourism has been causing more harm than good in developing countries. Creating dependency, taking away locals’ jobs, capitalising on poverty, and causing irreversible damage to children’s abilities to have meaningful, sustained relationships.

Black, lonely, excitable children are one of the most successful selling points used by voluntourism companies.

Their faces draw thousands of people to developing countries, like Cambodia every year.

The number of orphanages in Cambodia has increased by 65 per cent since 2005. According to UNICEF, only 21 of 300 orphanages at that time were run by the state.

80 per cent of children in these institutions are not orphans but instead have either been given up, or abducted in order to create a pantomime to draw the attention of voluntourism and the supplies, and donations that come with it.

In many cases, it has been reported that children have been purposely put in deplorable conditions, and not fed, in order to gain more sympathy from Western voluntourists.

UNICEF have described this as orphanage tourism, and it is just a snippet of the damage that voluntourism is having on children.

New York based author Pippa Biddle, who took part in a voluntourism trip when she was younger, has since done immense research on the topic and explained why she believes that voluntourism in orphanages, and schools causes irreversible damage on children’s development.

Research has shown that in order for children to develop into functioning adults, that have the ability to form long term relationships, they need their relationships with the adults in their lives to be stable when they are young.

“Even if it’s just going in and playing with kids for an afternoon that causes long term psychological damage,” she said, explaining that it is not one single person that causes the damage, but a different person playing with them everyday for their entire childhood.

She understood why so many people don’t come to the same conclusion she has about voluntourism until years after their trip because, “it’s hard to see that damage when you’re only there for a couple days, a couple weeks, a couple months.”

For Róisín Mangan, this was certainly the case. Mangan travelled to Tanzania after finishing school and spent 6 weeks teaching English and Mathematics to children.

“I was not a qualified teacher, I had no guidance or curriculum, I taught the children what I wanted,” she said.

Mangan now works for the Nigeria INGO Forum and said she now finds it, “extremely disturbing that we send a bunch of idealistic youth, with no actual skills to go teach Africans.”

She firmly said that voluntourism “exacerbates this ‘white saviour’ complex and perpetuates the narrative of Africa with children with flies in their eyes.”

Both Biddle and Mangan agreed that voluntourism has “been around ever since mass tourism has been around,” and that it has grown in popularity over the last 30 years.

Research and statistics on the impact of voluntourism are hard to find, and for the most part inadequate.

This is because a majority of trip providers  don’t carry out impact assessments and if they do, they tend to be on small sample sizes, or based the results in a single community or country.

SERVE is an organisation that claims to cause no damage to the countries it visits. It strives to instigate “sustainable development” rather than voluntourism.

NUIG student Isabel Dwyer went to Zambia with SERVE last summer and said volunteers were taught a code of conduct, which among many things taught them to avoid taking photos which promoted a “white saviour complex” such as photos with, “lots of children from shanty towns.”

Because of her training, she believes they, “imply that African countries can’t survive without us.”

Outside of a girls rescue centre in Kenya, a little girl climbs down off of Irish student Rachel’s back. The girl runs to the photographer alongside her friends to catch a glimpse of themselves in the camera. Rachel and her fellow volunteer’s trip had come to an end.

Now 20-years-old, she says “the moment I got there it changed my life, and the realisation of what I had only ever seen on TV ads hit me”. She said she has made “friends for life” with the young people she met in Kenya, whom she will “cherish forever.”

She has not come to the conclusion that Pippa Biddle, Róisín Mangan and many others have.

Rachel still cherishes that photo, taken just before the children waved goodbye to her, as the next group of volunteers stepped off their plane in Kenya, ready to do some good.

Roísín Phelan 

Image Credit: Róise McGagh