VOLUNTOURISM: WHEN GOOD INTENTIONS CAUSE HARM

“If smart, dedicated professionals can fail to achieve lasting progress over a period of years, how then is an untrained vacationer supposed to do so in a matter of days?” Jacob Kushner for the New York Times

If you ever loved a child with a chronic illness, disability or impairment, would you ever want them to be treated not by qualified professionals, but by ever-changing holidaymakers? Would you trust them with your child? Wouldn’t you feel sorry if he or she got attached to a foreign tourist who doubles as a teaching assistant, only to see them go the following week and be replaced by the next one? And would you like to see a child you love making rounds on strangers’ Instagram as an illustration of misery?

All of this doesn’t sound pleasant, so why do our societies continue encouraging ‘voluntourism’? Recently ROCS Group, a travel agency, launched a voluntourism opportunity as a part of the Kenya experience package in collaboration with Friends of Kenya, an NGO. Chilling in a fancy resort, going on safari – and then acting as assistants for children with hearing impairments. Although well-intentioned, this concept not only reinforces the ‘white saviour’ complex, but also raises a few ethical questions. At the core of it is a belief that any white tourist is good enough to work part-time with children in challenging circumstances. No training, no qualification, no selection required – just pay for this opportunity to feel good about yourself.

Sarcastic Instagram account Barbie Savior pokes fun at the white saviour complex

If the volunteering is a part of a holiday experience, will the tourists be allowed to take close-ups and selfies with the children without asking their parents’ or legal guardians’ consent despite various ethical guidelines discouraging the use of children in distress even for media and charity purposes? And who will be responsible if anything goes wrong, if on top of their impairment a child develops a mental condition from being placed on a revolving door of tourists who come, show affection and leave? Who is responsible for the quality of the tourists’ services?

The answer is probably ‘nobody’. And the underlying assumption is that any quality of service is good enough for Africa. From schooling to healthcare, voluntourism is about believing that any amateur can do it in Africa. Local organisations accept this arrangement because their resources are strained, but when it becomes comfortable enough for donors and recipients, voluntourists actually crowd out qualified local professionals, who didn’t come there to cuddle a child on the way to their safari, but need to make a living from what they do best.

In Cambodia, well-intentioned westerners’ love for orphans has led to emergence of a massive business that goes as far as to buy, rent or extort children from impoverished families. In countries like Malawi, families face the difficult choice of giving their children away to orphanages, because institutions have better chances at accessing aid than families. In Vietnam, NGOs hired local workers to correct the sloppy work of volunteers just to make sure that their fee-paying voluntourists feel good about themselves and keep coming. When untrained volunteers were left to work with children, they asked insensitive questions that made the children relive the traumas they had experienced.

Many people from rich countries get teaching, nursing and social work jobs just by virtue of being white and paying their way to these feel-good opportunities. This sends a signal to local authorities that they can do without investing into training qualified professionals to work with children, and to the country’s young people – that their chances of getting a job if they study one of these highly demanding professions are very slim. Their skills are valued just as much as a white tourist’s enthusiasm to enjoy a ‘vacation with a twist’.

It is commendable that businesses are looking for ways to channel travel revenue into social change, and it is rather clear that ROCS Group does not explicitly intend to perpetuate negative images about Africa, like some charities do, because it is in their interest that tourists discover and explore various countries of the continent. But it is not labour that is most needed in under-resourced areas. In fact, there are plenty of locals desperately looking for work – and for opportunities to learn.

The reason why there are not enough learning assistants in this part of Kenya is not because there is a lack of Kenyan workers who could do the job. The answer may lie in frugal welfare states, austerity measures, uneven development across regions, expensive education and similar structural issues. Businesses can play an important role in addressing some of these. If tourists leave not only their money but also their knowledge, they can help locals provide better service to their communities – and help people who are there to stay with the children in need.

If a travel business could channel some safari income to offer an affordable working holiday for a group of doctors, a group of educators, and a group of disability experts, who could enjoy their safari and spend a few hours a day teaching local students state-of-the-art methodologies, this would leave a more lasting impact than the revolving door of voluntourists working with children. If travel businesses worked with fair trade, tax-paying suppliers and disengaged from any corrupt practices within the countries they take tourists to, they could help improve transparency of public finances, so that health and education services would one day be offered to local citizens as a right, not as charity.

Finally, there are various environmental projects and educational exchanges where tourists can volunteer, without playing with children’s emotions and potentially leaving a lasting scar. Kenyan children, just like their Maltese peers, deserve quality services, provided by people who are there for them for more than a few days, and who have been properly trained.