Rafia Zakaria takes on the rise of “voluntourism” vacations, or vacations which combine foreign travel with a helping of charity work, in a column on Al-Jazeera English.
She points out that these vacations fuel the white-savior complex that already runs rampant in much of the West, while doing little permanent good for those who actually need help.
She cites an example of an orphanage in Bali, where parents would sent their children to ‘work’ as orphans, because visiting tourists would eagerly pay for their schooling and board. But when the tourist trade dried up, the children would be forced to beg on the street again for food and shelter.
She also acknowledges that one of the allures of foreign charity work is its simplicity, especially when compared to the grinding systemic problems of our own culture:
Typically other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve than those of one’s own society. In this context, the decontextualized hunger and homelessness in Haiti, Cambodia or Vietnam is an easy moral choice. Unlike the problems of other societies, the failing inner city schools in Chicago or the haplessness of those living on the fringes in Detroit is connected to larger political narratives. In simple terms, the lack of knowledge of other cultures makes them easier to help.
This imagined simplicity of others’ problems presents a contrast to the intangible burdens of post-industrial societies. Western nations are full of well-fed individuals plagued by less explicit hardships such as the disintegration of communities and the fraying of relationships against the possibilities of endless choices. The burdens of manic consumption and unabated careerism are not as easily pitied as crumbling shanties and begging babies. Against this landscape, volunteerism presents an escape, a rare encounter with an authenticity sorely missed, hardship palpably and physically felt — for a small price.
Read the whole column here.