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Free the Children’s voluntourism prioritizes emotional experience over efficient aid

Free the Children is selling colonial myths, and we’re buying them.

This summer, many will travel to developing countries for charitable work with organizations like Free the Children.

Craig Kielburger, founder of Free the Children, became famous in the ’90s as a child activist fighting to eradicate child labour in the developing world. Free the Children has developed into a multi-million dollar charity along with its subsidiary for-profit company Me to We, which offers humanitarian trips to countries such as Kenya, Ecuador and India. Me to We’s ostentatious promotional campaigns are popular with Canadian schools.

Me to We’s selling point is volunteer work, such as building schools in rural villages of developing countries. These types of organizations have been accused of shoddy work from inexperienced workers. Blogger Philippa Biddle, wrote about her experience in high school building a library in Tanazania, saying the work she did during the day was so bad that locals fixed the poor construction at night. Murtaza Haider, a professor at Ryerson University, wrote in an article for Dawn.com that Kielburger’s crusade to end child labour, with little understanding of the Pakistani carpet industry, prevented it from achieving an economic boom and actually forced children into poverty, due to the money lost in cancelled export contracts after this campaign.

I’m not accusing Free the Children of any of this — in fact, they seem to be highly aware of criticism against humanitarian aid. They insist they don’t provide charity, but sustainability.

Nonetheless, Me to We offers “voluntourism.” Itineraries on the website advertise exposure to a variety of cultural practices specific to each country, as well as volunteer work. The trip to Kenya, for instance, costs $6,245, lasts 20 days and when students aren’t on cultural excursions, they build schools for 11 days from 2:30 pm to 5:30 pm. Which means 33 hours of work per person.

This school building operation seems inefficient. Inexperienced Western workers perform menial labour while being directed by local workers. But how much would be accomplished in a shorter time if all that labour was local? Zealous humanitarians build a lot (Free the Children has built 20 school buildings in rural Kenya), but of course, Westerners are paying to feel as if they’re helping — they’re not there to necessarily do good work. And even if Western work is efficient, one Cameroon native Madelle Kangha said in a Forbes article “building schools doesn’t necessarily result in higher literacy, post-graduation employment rates or even increased education.”

It’s clear Me to We promotes emotional experience over education. Every trip features some time dedicated to discussing local issues, but it’s difficult to believe in its effectiveness when students making videos about their trip to Ghana can’t even pronounce “Ghanaians” or “Accra” properly. Also, Me to We advertises images of playing with kids, not talking with elders.

Since Me to We appeals mainly to high school students, they advertise the simplest message possible: the developing world needs our help, and we are helping by virtue of going on a Me to We trip. Kielburger is appealing to the same old colonial myths of help that seem self-evident in our culture. The 2011 MTV Canada special Degrassi in Kenya is a perfect example of the strength of the Western impulse to help: Canadian actors were disappointed that they didn’t get to finish building a school they had started, and seemed betrayed and resentful that local labourers took over their work. In other words, they were more concerned about themselves than the village.

Kielburger has an MBA — he knows what he’s selling. Kielburger knows that a vapid cutesy blond spokesperson saying “I’m a Maasai warrior,” before shooting an arrow will sell in Canada.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t travel — I’m saying become educated about the seemingly self-evident messages in our culture that aren’t cross-culturally applicable. It’s ironic that the people who don’t know these things are the ones building schools.

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3 Comments

  1. As someone who volunteered in a Cambodian orphanage with IVHQ, I can attest that the volunteer work had little to no actual benefit for the kids. Me being there didn’t get them the nutrition, health care, or education that they need and deserve. Instead they got an under qualified English teacher who spoke zero Khmer, who built emotional connections with the kids before abandoning them after 3 weeks to return to a middle class Canadian household, propagating a monthly cycle of abandonment by well-intentioned whites people. Realistically, I damaged the economy by taking away a job from a Khmer person who could have actually benefitted the kids. I hugely regret the trip.

  2. This article is great. While you can make a justifications for “good” or “helpful” voluntourism at the core sending young North American’s to foreign countries to make a difference is colonialist and it needs to fucking stop. Take all the time and money you get from these kids and train locals to work and create their own services. Last thing we need is more white people going into foreign countries to try and solve shit.

  3. While it can’t be argued that some people choose “voluntourism” as a means of boosting confidence and padding their resume, this article’s cynical approach to the trade ignores the hundreds of informed, generous people who volunteer abroad because they sincerely want to help. The article ignores companies like Projects Abroad and International Volunteer HQ, whose clients work daily with local organizations from 8am to 5pm, sometimes for several months. These organizations require clients to complete extensive pre-departure training specific to their placement, whether it be teaching, medical work, or construction. I would posit, contrary to this article, that only a small minority of voluntourist companies solely offer week-long tours that feature little volunteering. As a student who will be spending two months this summer in an orphanage for children with disabilities in Vietnam, I can attest that many of the people who volunteer abroad are not doing so for personal gain. The amount of time these individuals spend abroad, as well as the amount they fundraise for their placements beforehand, are a testament to that.

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