Voluntourism incites fetishization of Third World poverty

This piece was initially intended for a social justice blog run by a global nonprofit I interned with over the summer. They mobilize young people to spark change in their respective communities, and purport themselves to be youth-led and grassroots-focused. For their blog, they encouraged me to write on any topic that concerned me. However, this piece was ultimately not published because it deals with a phenomenon that they—even as a “progressive” nonprofit institution—practice themselves. As the Global Communications Officer mentioned in an apology email, “While we think the article’s important, we wouldn’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot.”

It’s June 2012. We’re in Delhi, India. I’m an entitled 14-year-old doing absolutely nothing with my time. 

Having just been severely admonished by my mom for whiling away my summer, I was now lounging on my bed, sullenly scrolling through a list of NGOs near me, hoping to find an organization that was willing to let a post-pubescent child volunteer with them. 

I’d like to preface that this was a time in my life when my social consciousness didn’t really exist. I was being taught, as many of us have been, that social work is a box that needs to be checked if you have any hope of going to a good college. And so, unsurprisingly, I was growing increasingly bored by how dull the work of the NGOs near me seemed. They wanted me to do the same old stuff that the administration at school made us do for extracurricular credit—teaching English and math to “underprivileged children” at nearby schools, raising money so they would have school supplies, picking up litter from particularly polluted areas. It seemed so unglamorous and I had done it all before. 

Don’t get me wrong; I wanted to care about poverty. I knew that poverty was unfair. I knew that I was exceptionally lucky. But I was 14. And I saw slums everywhere I went—on my commute to school, on the way to my best friend’s house, en route to the mall. I was incredibly desensitized; in retrospect, dangerously so. But then again, that’s just how it was growing up. Poverty existed all around my privileged bubble, dusting at its surface, but it never touched me.

Thus, as much as it makes me cringe to admit it, my eyes lit up with curiosity only when I came across a volunteering program that would take me to a multitude of countries across Africa to perform social work. It was several weeks long. It would cost me thousands of dollars. It would involve the very same teaching, fundraising and litter-collecting work that seemed so unappealing to me 12 minutes away from my house in Delhi. But alas, this would be in Africa…I was enamored. 

As soon as I told my mom what I wanted to do, she politely told me to shut the fuck up and go back to looking at NGOs in Delhi as opposed to vacations all over Africa. But that’s not the point. 

The deeply problematic nature of my interest in a voluntourism program such as that one speaks to a societal upbringing where children are raised to accept the systemic injustices of their immediate surroundings as inevitable, unchangeable and even uninteresting. Yet, they are simultaneously raised to believe that the systemic injustices in Third World countries far removed from them are somehow more horrifying, more unjust—more in need of “saviors” like themselves.

This doesn’t just apply to people in First World countries. Developing countries stereotype and patronize other developing countries all the time. Globalized stereotypes regarding underdevelopment and poverty in Africa, South Asia and other parts of the non-Western world are so pervasive that these harmful (and frankly, racist) ideas, initially sprouting out of the Western consciousness, now infiltrate the minds of people all over the globe. 

It’s the kind of societal conditioning that enabled a young girl like me, sitting in equally stereotyped South Asia, to feel a superiority complex in relation to Africa; to be surrounded by poverty all my life but only be moved to do something about it when it comes under the exotic label of African poverty. 

Not only does this conditioning serve to pit cultures and races from within the non-Western world against each other, but it teaches us all, no matter where we are, to fetishize the poverty of Black and brown bodies—a process that feeds into our own high-handedness in relation to said bodies. And consequently, we begin to believe that there are poor people out there—exotically poorer than the people we may have been exposed to—whom we could possibly deign to grace with our services. 

Thus, we have a situation on our hands where white saviorism has metastasized into an animal of its own, one that has progressed past whiteness and instead leaked into all power relations. And it’s that exact savior mentality that filters into the consciousness of so many children on a daily basis, formulates into beliefs and convictions as they grow into adults, and fuels the $173 billion voluntourism industry (ThriveGlobal, “Annual $173 Billion Worth Of Volunteer Tourism Industry Is Enough To Make A Change,” 10.16.2017).

The fetishization of Third World poverty driving this industry only serves to replicate colonial processes, where foreign personnel from wealthier backgrounds are placed in poorer settings and believed to have the expertise to magically bring development to those settings. 

And so, we have to ask ourselves, who is really benefiting from the charity of rich 20-somethings who teach English to a cohort of African or South Asian children, even as they have close-to-no understanding of the local language, culture and context within which those children are growing up? 

The focus on international volunteers over local volunteers who may be more well-versed in the language, landscape and culture to appropriately teach in that environment only serves to delegitimize the skillsets of locals and their abilities to drive change in their own communities. Instead, it says to the world that societies with increased poverty can’t elevate themselves out of it without the help of first-world personnel and resources, once again allowing us to feel justified in our own abilities to “save” other people.

The act of helping is highly political. Good intentions can only take you so far, but at some point, all of us good progressives have to think about whether the impact we’re making is desirable to the actual people we’re trying to support. We have to educate ourselves on how best to work with global grassroots movements and activists without replicating the conditions and power dynamics that require that grassroots work to exist in the first place. The onus is on us.

After I submitted this to the social justice blog it was intended for, the Global Comms Officer ran the piece by her boss, and then told me that while most of their work supports young people to organize around issues central to their experiences, they do collaborate with (and get funding from) the International Citizen Service (ICS), a British government agency that provides overseas placements for British volunteers between the ages of 18 and 25. They asked me if I could add a note in the article stating that the ICS’s work is different from the phenomenon I’m presenting. She then sent me materials outlining the benefits of what the ICS does and how it is not voluntourism. 

I refused to sacrifice the integrity of my opinion by reneging on its very premise. This led to a long apology email, in which she told me they could not publish the piece. In this context, I believe it’s more relevant than ever to talk about the harmful practices of voluntourism, the complicity of well-meaning institutions, and our own socialization. 

2 Comments

  1. Unfortunately Sasha, you’re wrong as wrong can be. There are hundreds of programs/activities in India that are run mainly/solely by Western volunteers/charities. Sure there are millions (hundreds of millions actually) of Indians, but the sad truth as you well know it is a large majority of them will not lift a finger to help even a dying man on the streets of India. Are you going to deny this ?

    God Bless the Woke Soul from the West who goes there to help Indians, its orphans, its poor. They show a better way to Indians and I’m glad they do it.

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