Apparently, for the last several years, in the upper reaches of Western society, the elite among us have been moiling away doing good works. This is not new: the crème de la crème have always shared their largesse with the rest of us, but in the old days it was kinda ad hoc, and, therefore manageable. These days, however, volunteerism has become a multinational business (like the oh-so- evil Walmart) and it’s getting out of hand. I realize calling down charity is like attacking a unicorn — nobody’s going give me a thumbs up on this one — but when something becomes a destructive force, what am I supposed to do?
So, ladies and gentleman, I give you the latest in a series of do-gooder blunders: voluntourism. This little puppy is so wrong — on so many levels — I don’t even know where to start — perhaps, a definition?
In essence, voluntourism is a thinly disguised guilt-free vacation. Rich people can indulge themselves, eat up tons of fossil fuels and other resources and justify it by “giving back” (a vague feel good term that means absolutely nothing.) The vast majority of voluntourists are well-meaning high school and college kids who can afford to “give back” because they don’t have to sling burgers or mochaccinos on a daily basis to pay for their education. The voluntourism experience looks good on a CV; thus giving the voluntourist a rung up on the education and career ladders over their poor bugger peers (who couldn’t afford a semester off in sub Saharan Gabrungi.) Plus, it gives them something to brag about until the first child goes to preppie preschool. Everybody’s happy — except some of us are a little happier than others.
At the other end of this libero-colonial adventure, the target destinations either adapt to their newfound benefactors or they go under. I can’t think of a better way to screw up a struggling local economy than introducing a pool of high quality unpaid labour into the mix. Suddenly, the neighbourhood workforce (in pretty much every area except aid administration) is facing stiff competition from a gang of gungho kids from Indiana. These boys and girls have resources at their disposal that the local folks can only dream about, and they’re undercutting shipping, handling, materials and labour by 100%. Think about it: how long would even a mighty Mcdonald’s franchise last if I opened a burger joint down the block that gave away Happy Meals for free? Even when the voluntourists actually work with the locals, they’re still stealing jobs. These are jobs that an embryonic micro-economy can’t afford to lose.
The only defence against this economic genocide is, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Many local institutions have had to become part of the Western charity food chain in order to survive. Frankly, there’s no advantage to solving problems and flying right if the minute you do, the voluntourists move on, the money dries up and you’re left worse off than when you started. In fact, there are some very clear advantages to not poking your head above the poverty line. So when the voluntourists show up and want to build yet another school, your best bet is to shut up and let them do it. If nothing else, some local somebody is going to make a shekel or two feeding, housing and looking after these contemporary bwanas. Besides, they might tell their friends what a good time they had sorting out the natives, and next season’s crop of Lady Bountifuls will be assured. “It’s the Circle of Life/And it moves us all.”
I’m not against charity, volunteerism or giving my fellow human beings a helping hand. I just can’t abide a bunch of people blundering around the world paving the local roads to hell with their good intentions. The grinding poverty on our planet doesn’t need charity; it needs jobs — local jobs that feed the local economy. Those people who want to help the downtrodden places in our world need to commit to more than just a vacation full. They need to bring business with them when they come, open a local bank for microloans, or start an export clothing business, a bicycle repair shop, or just a simple bed and breakfast. Unfortunately, these things take time and commitment, and the positive results need years to take root. Voluntourists have to get back to their own lives. They have things to do that don’t include slogging it out in a minor village in Cambodia or Rwanda for five, ten or twenty years.
I don’t care how you slice it: voluntourists are tourists; that’s all they are. The interesting thing is, since tourism adds a lot of dollars to any local economy, everybody would be a lot better off, if they just acted like it.