The Voluntourist’s Dilemma

Recently I read a New York Times article written by Jacob Kushner entitled “The Voluntourist’s Dilemma” which engages with the subject of ‘do-gooder’ tourism. The article describes ‘voluntourists’ as travelers, often well-to-do and from the Western world, who “come for a week or two for a “project” — a temporary medical clinic, an orphanage visit or a school construction.” According to the article, these brief projects often fall short of meeting the needs of the people they are meant to serve. In several extreme cases, the writer states that “sometimes, volunteering even causes real harm.” Charity, or rather helping those in need, is a basic human instinct that has existed for as long as we have, although, for better or worse, it has in the last few centuries became closely tied with Christian missionary work. The world we live in now, however, is a different one. As modern technological advances have made travel easier and cheaper for those of us living in the Western world; the rise of the internet has aided in making travel more accessible and specifically more appealing than ever before. While charity is by no means a new concept, the notion of misplaced charity (in the functional rather than altruistic sense) is one whose rise has been evidenced by situations like the ones described in Kushner’s article.

I dislike the word ‘underdeveloped’ due to the air of colonialist condescension which comes with its use, so I will instead say that I currently live in a country that lacks same level of infrastructure and cultural dominance which characterizes many of the countries we view as developed or first-world. That country is Peru, and I have been living in Cusco for the past eight months. I manage a nonprofit whose objective is to provide free after school sports programs to young girls in order to help them develop important life skills like confidence, empowerment, communication, teamwork and healthy living. I am a volunteer, but am contracted to my Project Manager position for a full year which begs the question of whether not it somehow sets me apart from being a voluntourist. I think so, but it is a particularly tricky question to engage with, and one that does not necessarily have a ‘right’ answer. In the eight months that I’ve lived here, I have certainly asked myself what kind of impact I’m making — if any. It is an easy existential crisis to thrust upon my psyche as I (like many young millennials just out of college) seek to validate my own existence. Every time I’ve asked myself this question I have struggled with it, but I can honestly say that I have consistently worked through my various thoughts and come out every time feeling that my work is meaningful to not just me, but specifically to my students.

Cusco is of course filled with every imaginable type of tourist, but the notion of voluntourism is one which I experience on a very frequent basis. I meet people all the time at restaurants and bars and also when I am DJing on Friday nights and volunteering (that damn word again…) at a local café on some of my weekends and days off. After I explain to them what I am doing here, I am frequently asked if there might be an opportunity for them to volunteer with my organization during their stay in Cusco — which often amounts to a few days at the very least and a few weeks at most. I also occasionally field emails from various people who have heard about the organization and wanted to plan ahead of their visit and inquire about short-term volunteer opportunities. I do not look down on these people, and I would never turn away someone who wants to help out — but I suppose that I have also become so accustomed the transient nature of tourism in this city that I have to admit I’m always a bit wary of such requests.

My first week in Cusco, I was introduced by the then-Project Managers to each of our schools. One of them is not so much a school, but rather a nonprofit home for teen moms that is run by Spaniards. They always have a surplus of volunteers, but that particular week they were hosting an entire group of high-school aged kids who were on some sort of expensive summer program where they got to travel in South America while also volunteering. When we asked them about the program, one of them explained to us that they were all “learning how to do service”…I was appalled by the complete and utter ignorance and privilege implied by such a statement. I worked several years as a camp counselor with that age group, and believe me if those kids had been my campers we would have had a LONG discussion on the topic. But they were just a random group of kids and so I didn’t say anything although the instance has stuck with me these past eight months and probably has a lot to do with my skepticism towards travelers looking to ‘do some service’ with my organization and my students.

The idea sickens me that many people view ‘service’ like a gift that we as Westerners can bestow upon countries in need. Kushner masterfully expressed this sentiment when he stated that “Perhaps we ought to abandon the assumption that we, simply by being privileged enough to travel the world, are somehow qualified to help ease the world’s ills.” There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to help out those in need, but I have to admit that I often question the intentions of many would-be volunteers. Ignorance is only excusable in some cases, and this context is one which I have a lot trouble with.

Rather than adding to my wariness, reading this article instead re-engaged me with my own internal conversation and questions about the validity of not just my job, but of volunteer work in general in developing countries like the one I am living in. In questioning the purity of others’ charitable intentions, I have come reconsider and define my own. It is crucial to engage in internal conversations such as these, and in the midst of thinking about the notions of charity, giving, and voluntourism, I came back across a forgotten but very significant memory:

The first time I experienced the phenomenon of misplaced charity I was barely old enough to grasp the complexity of the situation, although I have distinct memories of the unsettling feeling that, even if I could not fully identify it, something was decidedly ‘wrong’. I was a few weeks shy of my twelfth birthday and on a three-and-a-half week safari in South Africa and Botswana with my parents, brother and grandmother. We, along with our guide (also white), were invited by our camp’s tracker — a local man — to accompany him to his village and take part in a celebration at the local school.

Although I have traveled extensively in my twenty-two years, these are the first set of memories I have in which I can recall feeling the self-conscious prickling of privilege. Or at least, to my eleven-year-old self, the acknowledgement of what ‘I’ had in contrast with what ‘they’ did not. For this vacation my parents had given my younger brother and I our first digital cameras and on this day I remember feeling excited to take what I thought of as ‘National Geographic’ pictures of the school and its children. Although I am hesitant to exempt children from accountability when it comes to instances like this one, can you really blame a child for thinking such things? I obviously feel embarrassed now to have had those thoughts, but that was the first time in my life that I had truly come face to face with my own privilege. I think that in retrospect what was important about this experience was not what I was thinking at the time, but rather how the experience has made me feel all these years later.

So, what was the celebration even for? From what I remember, some organization or group in the United States had donated about fifteen brand new computers to the school; a generous donation, certainly, except for the fact that the school did not have electricity. The community was all dressed up and eager to show us around the school and its buildings, and we were encouraged to join them in singing and dancing. I was a precocious child and a classic example of the older sister who wanted to be ‘in’ on what all the adults were talking about, and I remember trying to decode the embarrassed looks and decipher the clipped but pointed sentences which passed between my parents and grandmother over the course of the morning. Much as I would have liked to, I did not entirely ‘get’ what the adults were talking about, but I can distinctly remember feeling that something was definitely not right, and that ‘it’ was the source of their cryptic conversations.

While I have certainly been blessed by the opportunity to travel throughout my life, I would not describe myself or my family as ‘voluntourists’, and definitely not Christian missionaries. The purpose of that particular vacation was to go on safari, and the visit to the school was just an event that happened to present itself while we were there. My parents have always believed in the notion that travel is one of the truest forms of education, and that one of the most important things to have in life is a well-developed worldview which allows one to not necessarily empathize (for that would be blindly self-indulgent) but certainly understand the world outside of our privileged confines. With every stamp in my passport I have expanded my worldview and tried to soak in all that each new culture has offered me, but Peru is the first place I have traveled to for the purpose of volunteering.

The memory of the school celebration is one that has stuck with me all these years, and it is one which I’ve returned to often in thinking critically about not just my work in Cusco, but also about my responsibilities — or lack thereof — as an educated Western woman doing volunteer work in cultures and communities which are not my own. South Africa was the first place I traveled to which truly made me think about my place in the world, but it was just the first in a string of countries I would visit and engage with prior to making the decision to move to Peru. As I contrast my time here with past memories, I can easily identify what sets this experience apart from others, although I wonder often if the factors which affirm my existence here are as simple as continual engagement in critical thinking and an aspirational pull to maximize the desired outcomes of my work.

Perhaps, as Kushner suggests, the effectiveness of volunteer work should be evaluated on a different set of terms. If so, should we assume that impact and significance be reduced quantitatively to a question of time commitment? Or do they have more to do with applying one’s own particular skillset to a problem? Under these qualifications I can certainly justify myself and my ability to do ‘good work’ here in Cusco, but I wonder why I even feel a need to substantiate myself in these contexts. This ‘need’ is not an external one — it’s not like I’ve actually ever been questioned about the legitimacy of what I am doing, and I am certain that there are people all over Cusco, Peru and the world who are doing far less meaningful work than I am.

Meaningful is a tricky word however, because in this context its endorsement could be applied to the people doing the work as well as to the recipients of their efforts. Are we to assume that productive voluntourism is measured not by the purity of a volunteer’s intentions, but rather by the efficacy of their methods and the strength of their results? I have to admit that my rational mind is inclined towards this estimation, while at the same time my impassioned spirit is hesitant to condemn well-intentioned people who lack the time or the skills to truly commit to helping a cause. Should the weight of misplaced charity fall solely upon their shoulders? I don’t think so. I believe that it should instead be largely bestowed upon the groups and organizations in charge of facilitating these projects. I suppose there is no right answer, and perhaps mine will change after I’ve left Peru and moved back to the motherland. For now at least, I can say with confidence that I know what I am doing is ‘worth it’ — in every sense of the word — and I guess that’s good enough for me.

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