If you’re on the Internet and follow any social justice or liberal media, you’ve probably heard a condemnation or two of ‘voluntourism’, the practice of combining volunteering and tourism – otherwise known as the short-term service trip. The critiques tend to be pointed and scathing: you are using the developing world as a playground, you are part of the white savior industrial complex, you are a narcissist primarily concerned with your own experience. And, to be honest, they’re all good points. There is a real danger that your well-intentioned Spring Break trip to build a school or teach English for the first time will fall into any or all of these traps, and that should be taken very seriously. I’ve done one of these short-term service trips myself, and noticed these tendencies in my own attitude.
However (and of course there’s a however, several Dwight Hall groups send service trips after all!) I do honestly think that ‘voluntourism’ can be redeemed. For a start, most of the ‘external’ concerns about these trips are manageable, with a little prior investigation and forethought: aim to go on a trip where you have an actual skill to contribute, make sure you are working alongside a well-established local organisation who will continue working after you leave, and be very suspicious of companies who charge huge sums of money for your experience. In other words, ensure that your institutional presence is helping, not hurting.
Much more difficult to address are the ‘internal’ concerns: what is your motivation for going, and how might your personal presence be damaging? Here are my Top 5 Tips for limiting the ‘Voluntourist’ in you:
1) Learn about the country you are visiting. Do you know its geography? Its traditions? Have you learnt some basic language? Do you know what the social taboos are? Can you name the country’s president/prime minister/leader? A surprising number of students travel overseas with little to no knowledge of the place they are hoping to help. The community you are visiting are not responsible for educating you, especially when a little Internet search can go a long way.
2) Manage your expectations. Are you going with the hope of experiencing some form of enlightenment/emotional awakening/spiritual high? Do you believe the experience will be life changing? Perhaps it will. But you’re also visiting a place where, like any other place, you will encounter food, cultural norms, even people, that you don’t like or don’t agree with. The community you are visiting are not responsible for you enjoying yourself or providing you with life-changing moments.
3) Be realistic and honest about your role in service. Even if you are actually highly skilled in language teaching, engineering or medicine, your ability to help a community you are joining for a very short time is going to be small, even if the only barriers are culture and work methods (not to mention the preponderance of technically unskilled volunteers like me who head overseas!). Go with the aim of learning a lot, listening to what the community is asking of you, and limiting yourself to what they want, not what you think they need. The community you are visiting are not responsible for conducting damage control to counter your ‘innovations’.
4) Consider NOT posting photos of your trip on social media. Yes, it is very tempting to join in hashtagging service trips and selfies with grinning foreign children. No, it is not helpful for you, the community you are visiting, or even the people who will see them. By all means, take photos for yourself – but if your intention is to get online acknowledgement in exchange for them, your motives for taking them will be skewed, and it will be much harder to be present with the people you are supposed to be serving if you’re on the look out for that picture-perfect-adorable-smile-exotic-background moment. I am speaking honestly, from my own experience. The community you are visiting are not responsible for providing your profile picture.
5) When you get home, challenge yourself to change one major habit or behaviour as a result of your trip. The reality is that the most long-term positive impact of your trip will be you changing your own behaviour as a result of the experience. Going to a country with significant numbers of refugees/immigrants in the U.S? Find out how you can support them when you return. Going to a country with major exports that you consume back home? Challenge yourself to buy those products (like coffee, tea, chocolate) from companies who look after their workers and adopt sustainable business practices. Join causes which put public pressure on unethical corporations to change their practices. There is a tragic irony in providing short-term service to a community who is also a victim of your lifestyle choices when you leave.
Your short-term trip may be very positive. You might learn a lot, you might provide welcome short-term relief and support for local organisations and projects, and you might be challenged to change your own habits as a result. But these positives require some serious commitment: commitment to listening, to flexibility, to service over leadership, and a commitment to honest personal examination. May your trip be a success for you and those you are visiting!
Are you participating in an overseas service trip this Spring Break or over the summer and would like some help with prior training and planning? Get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hannah Malcolm (M.A.R World Christianities), Rev. John Magee Fellow at Dwight Hall