Voluntourism is quickly becoming one of the most popular ways to spend spring breaks in the West, but as much as I would like to applaud their intentions, I can't. Because the thing with voluntourism is that you can never really be sure what their intentions are.
I guess you could say that I'm something of a cynic, and I've seen enough Facebook photos to know that, no, people don't really just do good things for good things anymore, especially if they end up posting photos of the deed on Facebook. And the moment you decide to go on a "volunteer vacation" and post photos from it, I immediately lose some respect for you.
During my recent trip to Bora, my friend asked me why I never posted any of my travel photos, and I just didn't have the heart to tell her that I didn't see the point. Another great friend I met over there asked me why I didn't have as many photos or status messages on my Facebook as other people did, and it's the same thing: I don't see the point. I don't see the point of posting an excessive number of photographs and messages, other than stealth-boasting.
I do understand that Facebook is meant to be a tool for sharing tidbits of your lives with other people, and I respect that people can do whatever they wish with their profiles. I'll never be one to bash others for the kinds of things they post, but it's really caused me to start to question everything I see posted on Facebook. Why does anyone ever post anything anymore?
Admittedly, the things I post on Facebook are usually things I take pride in, or links to Endophora. It's all more or less for self-promotion, or photos uploaded after the goading of my friends. Some photographers also need to upload their work so they can get more business, and again, it's a point of pride for them, and while I'm all for doing something you can be proud of, I find the thought of posting voluntourism photos quite difficult to swallow.
It's not just because of the fact that they post photos either. Rather, it also has to do with the fact that these people who post these things probably don't even know what they're doing. I know some pretty amazing people who've been involved with volunteer tourism, like Save Philippine Seas' co-founder Anna Oposa, who actually work hard to accomplish more than just take beautiful photos in foreign lands. The same friend who asked me about my travel photos is also gearing up to start volunteering in Africa. On the other side of the spectrum, I also have a friend who seems to be "volunteering" just for the heck of it, with no real skills to offer.
Therein lies the difference between effective voluntourism and, well, ineffective voluntourism. As J.B. McKinnon wrote for the UTNE Reader, most voluntourists don't really do much good. That's because most voluntourists -- especially those from the West -- arrive in third-world countries with something of a misguided messiah complex. They think they can help the poor with their textbooks and canned goods, and then leave having made the world a better place. They haven't, because when individual "volunteers" come to poverty-stricken lands for short periods of time, offering their own semblances of altruism, they mess up the entire system built by the people who began volunteer efforts in the place years before the cult of voluntourism was even born.
Research has also suggested that volunteer vacations are nothing but a ploy to milk gullible tourists for all they're worth. The more expensive a voluntourism trip is, the less responsible it is, and the less likely it is to disclose its actual cost structure and expenses. Justin Francis, the CEO of Responsible Travel, said: “In the context of volunteering, ‘responsible’ means that a project should deliver what it promises - positive change to communities and or conservation. There are some very responsible expensive volunteering trips, and some very irresponsible cheap ones - like day trips for unskilled people to orphanages.”
Unsurprisingly, the Philippines itself even boasts of the many volunteer vacations, with absurd programs like "having breakfast with the impoverished" (you know what they say about giving a man a fish), "assistance in the actual weaving of the piña fiber" (which, let's not kid ourselves, could even put a damper on productivity), and "arts and crafts activities" (how does this even count as a volunteer opportunity?). How exactly these little activities are meant to help our sad country. one volunteer at a time, is beyond me. I swear, this country never fails to impress.
Most volunteer organizations offer basic training to people who want to volunteer with them, but they're also incredibly specific about the kind of people they admit to their programs. It's not enough to want to do good -- you actually have to be able to do good. My friend who wants to go to Africa is even afraid that she might not be accepted, because she has no technical skills that can aid her when she actually heads to an impoverished town.
And even if you were to be accepted into a legitimate, responsible volunteerism firm, you'd have to stay for more than just a few days -- more than just a few weeks -- to be able to see anything positive effects actually happening. Another friend of mine, Red, spent months (it could've been a year, and I wish I was sure, but I'm not :() teaching children in Africa, and he's such a better person for it. Compare this to the thousands of privileged white girls who travel to third-world countries on week-long school "exposure" trips, and you'll find that there's a huge difference between going to different communities to be able to say that they've done something great and have helped people, and going to communities to be able to say that "Just helped the people of Africa!" and be told that they've done something great.
Altruism is all about selflessness -- helping others when you could use some help yourself. And if you're volunteering just for the heck of it, just to be able to say that you've done your part, without even considering what part you're supposed to be playing in the greater scheme of volunteer organizations that abound in the world, then you're not really doing it right.