Voluntourism is Neo-Colonialism

Political Cartoon Depicting Voluntourism

With the promise of the future comes progress and the hope “to distance outselves from the religio-racial ideologies that reigned in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries for the dispossession of First Nations people, African Americans, and later Asians, Arabs, and Latinos in America”. It is without a doubt that racism of the past (especially as it pertains to the United States) arose out of Christianity and the idea of a righteous, divined-by-God people (for more info on the topic of Manifest Destiny in the U.S. and the racism behind the word “civilization”, see here). This righteousness is distinctly tied to the development of a hierarchy of races and white supremacy.

Settlers pre-American Revolution and Americans post-American Revolution invaded the land of the First Nations peoples of North America believing that because they’re ancestors lived to cross the ocean from Europe and because they were immune to diseases of Europe that killed the Native peoples, they were chosen by God to take the land of North America. Native Americans enslaved Africans, who were often already evangelized. These enslaved persons worked with white missionaries to mediate between missionaries, traders and the Native Americans. In establishing this relationship with the missionaries, the enslaved persons were able to “evade and resist their masters’ control”. The downside to this is that they replaced their unsaved Native American masters with saved missionary masters who closely watched the enslaved persons “to stamp out the last vestiges of heathenism among black worshippers”.

The association between Christianity and whiteness is foundational to understanding the impact of mission work completed by people of one nation to people of another nation. The origins of American mission work was not just to save the souls of Native American people but to also get Native American people to comply with white society and culture. This would make them more docile and easier to take advantage of and control. Native Americans never really had a choice, though, with the advent of boarding schools that all but kidnapped children and attempted to turn them into white, Christian citizens, in effect committing cultural genocide (they were not allowed to speak their native language, practice their religions,or wear native clothing and were forced to practice Christianity).

Ted Talk: Voluntourism: When You Take More Than You Leave Behind

Voluntourism and contemporary mission work can be critiqued as neo-colonialism, a continuation of the imperialism and colonialism thought to be in the past. Neocolonialism typically occurs through restraints on economic means, like the intervention of international organizations and their fees (International Monetary Fund, United Nations, World Bank). Neocolonialism can also be extended through cultural practices, as emphasized above with the cultural genocide of Native Americans via their religious conversion.

Critique of Economic Exploitation of Neocolonialism

Voluntourism is when people take a vacation (high-school students and parents or church groups for usually two weeks or college students doing study abroad or taking a gap year) and try to help a community, typically under the auspices of evangelizing them in the name of Jesus. It is typically feel-good work, like building a school, with long-lasting repercussions that visiting groups never account for (like accrediting teachers, pay for teachers, helping students pay for uniforms, tuition and books).

A lot of these actions performed are short-term solutions that fail to get at the systemic issues that really plague these societies. And while it may feel good to clean an orphanage or paint businesses, it can actually harm these communities more because these tourists take away jobs from locals who can likely get the job done faster with their experience. Then there is the practical waste of the money that volunteers do when they pay to fly out to some country to do this short-term, potentially harmful work, when instead they could have donated their travel and housing money to these areas (to pay for the tuition of students or the salaries of teachers).

Political Carton on the Control of Africa by Outside Interests

Instead, this behavior serves to prop up the voluntourism industry to entice Americans and other people from developed countries to spend their time in these poorer countries. This means that systemic issues resulting in poverty and societal ills are actually productive for the country. The country that supports the voluntourism industry currently benefits from a system that harms its citizens. The more the citizens are seen as suffering, the more money can be pulled into the voluntourism industry as people from wealthy countries visit to try to help these individuals.