The return to school in the fall brings on a wave of new opportunities: the possibility of meeting new friends, exciting welcome-back parties, untouched pads of paper, and unfortunately, a fresh wave of colorful posters smattering the walls, advertising programs that promise you the opportunity to “change your life by changing someone else’s”. These “voluntourism” programs offer opportunities where students pay thousands of dollars for a two week trip to Africa or Central America to build a school, a house, a shallow well, or something along those lines. After the two-week period, they step back, pat themselves on the back, and return home with a full heart and peaceful mind, thinking that their “contribution” was a powerful stride in the battle against global poverty.
If these students are to ask themselves just a few deeper questions, they would quickly realize that there are some major red flags surrounding the work they are doing. They might also find that that their work is nothing but a Band-Aid solution, or even that they’re creating more harm than good.
If you’re a student considering going overseas to work on a development project, first ask yourself if you are qualified and have the necessary skill-set for the position. If you’re working on an infrastructure project with no experience in construction or design, you’re probably not the most qualified person for the job. Despite many donor groups painting an image of developing nations being helpless, these countries are actually full of skilled labourers and tradespeople who do possess the necessary skill-sets. If you feel very passionately about infrastructure, rather than spending thousands on construction that will most likely have to be rebuilt soon after, find a way to invest while also creating jobs for local, skilled workers. This not only results in more infrastructure, but it also supports the local economy and will probably result in higher quality construction.
If you do possess the necessary skill-set, that’s great. But now ask yourself some questions regarding sustainability, because all infrastructure requires maintenance. After you leave, who’s in charge of maintaining the school, well, or house that you built? Does the party responsible for maintenance have the capacity to fulfill that mandate? Does the organization you work for ensure that the responsible party has the capacity to do so by working with them prior to you leaving the project? Does the organization you work for follow the government’s processes and policies of the country you are in? Does the government know you are doing work in their country?
These may seem like straightforward and obvious questions to ask, but an overwhelming number of Non-Governmental-Organizations (NGOs) continue to work with blinders on. They build something and leave, without consulting the local government or working in accordance with their policies. This results in a lack of sustainability because the infrastructure is not being maintained the way it should be, and without maintenance, the infrastructure will not last and becomes a liability.
While qualifications and maintenance are two big issues associated with voluntourism, there is one that is arguably worse: the perpetuation of the “white saviour” complex. Imagine if you came to work one day, and you had a new colleague who just arrived from a country very different from your own. He doesn’t speak the local language and doesn’t have any skills that justify him doing the line of work that you do. He is there because “he wants to help”, even though he’s only there for less than a month, which is hardly enough time to do anything particularly useful. Despite these apparently obvious setbacks, this new colleague has confusing, unearned privileges and responsibilities, such as access to your boss whenever he likes, and is assigned tasks he has hardly been trained properly for.
When we engage in work similar to the previously described scenario, what kind of message are we sending to the people on the receiving end of our “help”? By placing privileged volunteers for a short period of time in positions they are completely unqualified for, we are saying that being wealthy and educated makes it appropriate to do so. Similarly, we are insinuating that the local population is unable to perform the same physical labour or menial tasks, simply because they are not wealthy and educated.
The reality is that international development has become an industry that caters to the people who work in it rather than those they intend to serve. The root causes of poverty are found in complex systems and voluntourism reduces those complex roots to seemingly simple ones with emotionally-charged solutions, so that unskilled volunteers willing to pay big money can feel illusions of charity and self-fulfillment. By doing so, voluntourism encourages the growth of the very inequalities it is attempting to eradicate.
I urge all students participating in an international development program to think critically about the work they are doing. Think about the systems that perpetuate poverty rather than the sensational solutions offered by voluntourism companies. If the solution to alleviating poverty were as simple as these programs make them out to be, we would be seeing much more progress than we currently are. Your contributions to the international development sector support a market, and it’s your responsibility to create a demand for thoughtful and sustainable development.