The problematic rise of voluntourism

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.

Category : The Lead
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3 Comments
  1. grace for all

    I appreciate the concerns raised in this article,but I want to share another perspective. My former church had a sister relationship with a congregation in Mexico, along with other support, once a year we ran a medical clinic for a week. We worked with a local doctor for any follow up that was needed. My children went each year. They spoke Spanish and played with younger children while the adults saw the medical people. The impact on my own children can never be over stated. Living for a week in another culture and building friendships made a life alternating effect on them and decisions they made for their professional lives. One of my daughters went to Kenya one year to help build a clean water supply for a remote villiage. The next year, while in college, she raised enough money to buy netting for the entire villiage, which she personally delivered the next summer while working with a doctor in Kenya who was working on a malaria vaccine. As a medical doctor now she has made month long trips to Malawi working in an orphanage. the organizations my children have worked with are in places for the long term. They are there not only to meet immediate needs but to empower local communities as well. The author is right about the complex issues involving communities around the world. But we must never give up trying to do the right thing because some consider it naïve or self serving. When I die someday I have left this world with four caring chidren who will not end injustice in their world, but will put their small dent in it, which is a lot better than living self centered lives. thanks for letting me share.

    Tim Lusk

    Tucson, AZ

  2. David O'Rourke

    Good points Tim. There is great value to stepping outside of ones world and seeing and experiencing how others live, whether that be in parts of our own communities that are very different from what we know or to a foreign country. I think the key thing to look at is, is the purpose of the trip to learn, gain exposure, build mutual relationships, and engage in a project that brings skills to a community that they don’t have, or is it to engage in a project that might make us feel good, but can perhaps be better done by local residents who have the skills to do the work, and can also earn wages doing so?

    We have been reading and talking about “Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton in our Outreach group, and he addresses many of these issues.

  3. LGMarshall

    The Christian Missionaries I know, haven’t run into this dilemma …they go to serve the LORD, and the Lord blesses them for their service to Him.

    Christians give out of an overflowing of their hearts. If one person is blessed, then that is a victory in Gods eyes. If the help is rejected by the people it is intended for, then seeds of Faith have been planted. In Gods timing, there will be fruit. Christians have the assurance and peace in knowing, that God’s Word never returns Void.

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