Looking Good or Doing Good

Originally written and published for Culture Club on July 3.

Voluntourism (noun): a form of tourism that involves traveler participation in voluntary work, typically for a charity

It’s summer — the season when countless Westerners may find themselves leaving the land of air-conditioning for fulfilling service trips abroad in the developing world.

Bright-eyed teens, young adults and well-meaning middle-aged professionals searching for a mid-career break will return armed with photos of smiling, gap-toothed black and brown children, a handful of souvenirs, and a swarthy tan as if to proclaim to the world “I conquered hardship.

What could be wrong with wanting to help? As it turns out, a lot.

In recent years, we have seen some pushback against the glossy yet flawed voluntourism industry. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” Teju Cole’s withering salvo on the “banality of sentimentality,” challenges the do-gooders of the world to do due diligence before launching on a crusade in the Global South. The new film “Framed,” featuring acclaimed Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina and activist Boniface Mwangi, rails against the “selling of suffering.”

The critiques of the industry are not only limited to Africans — former voluntourists Pippa Biddle and Lauren Kascak have written about the problems of voluntourism, cautioning those who wish to go on such trips against cultural insensitivity, meaningless work, and ill-conceived photo-ops. While the picture these authors offer is largely negative, I think there are some questions that people can ask themselves to make sure they actually do good while volunteering abroad:

1. Why do I want to go?

Are you looking to develop some professional experience, to learn a hard skill, to work on an issue you care about, to go on an adventure or to snap a few photos with locals for Facebook? Remember, volunteering is not supposed to be centered around you. Your focus should be on the community you are serving.

2. How will I contribute?

Instead of adding value to an organization’s work, volunteers often cost organizations time and money because of the effort involved in their training and management. To be an asset rather than a burden, volunteers must either devote a considerable amount of time in order to meet and surpass these costs or perform tasks that require little oversight.

As you decide where you want to perform volunteer work, figure out whether or not the organization will have work for you to do that will engage you productively and better the community. To that end, skills-based volunteering often helps the most. You don’t have to be a doctor or a lawyer. You can help by doing things like improving English proficiency or helping people become more comfortable with technological tools.

3. Who comprises the staff?

If the majority of the staff of your organization is based abroad rather than concentrated at your destination, there is a high chance that the work you are doing might be out of touch with the community’s needs. Look for a group that has a local staff or — at the very least — partners with local organizations.

4. How long can I stay?

If you are volunteering for merely two weeks, there is a likelihood that you won’t make much difference unless you are working on a clearly-defined project or something that requires urgent action (e.g. disaster relief). You need patience to make a difference. The Western world’s culture of instant gratification is often not well-suited for developing world challenges, which take time to address. If you’re working on structured project, six weeks might be a good target. If your project is more open-ended, you might want to consider stationing yourself in a country for a few months to develop a rapport with the local staff and community, get over your initial learning curve and culture shock, and actually make use of your time.

5. How will I sustain a relationship with the community?

If you are working on a short-term project, the community may be used to a rotating cycle of volunteers, so the expectation for a sustained relationship may be low. Nevertheless, you can translate your experience into some tangible outcome to help give back. If the organization could use some more resources, consider fundraising and elevating the profile of the group back home. If your home country pursues a policy that harms the community (e.g. American subsidies eroding the Haitian rice market), make efforts to lobby legislators to change government policies. If you have a long-term relationship with the community, maintain contact with people — especially children, who can be most devastated by a volunteer’s abrupt departure — by staying in touch via letter or e-mail (if the community has internet access).

Most importantly, avoid using people as props in poverty porn photographs.

Akinyi OchiengComment