It has been a busy week for debating about “voluntourism”. I have about 8 tabs open with different articles, blogs and comments about responsible volunteering.
It all seems to stem from this article in the Independent newspaper’s Voices section, titles “The tragic rise of gap year voluntourism” by Ritwik Deo. The article is a bit of a polemic about gap year volunteers which includes all the usual stereotypes that they are naive white toffs called Rupert and Prunella who end up in the civil service boasting about their gap year experiences at cocktail parties. It is unfortunate that this is the overwhelming tone of the article, as if you strip this back, the underlying argument is actually quite relevant – the “hijacking” of volunteering by the profit making travel industry, the new colonialism of groups of western volunteers spending their gap years in developing countries for the experience or adventure, the impact on children of the endless stream of western volunteers in orphanages and the displacement of local workers by young volunteers doing manual building work. The article ends with this comment:
“by allowing irresponsible volunteering to continue we are perpetuating the myth of white man’s burden. Today’s generation schooled in this myth will grow up exactly like yesteryear’s generation thinking that it is their moral duty to intervene in the darkest stretches of the planet.”
This is exactly what responsible volunteering should be moving away from but this article brings this right back to the centre of the debate.
There are lots of responses to this article and they tend to be polarised, from agreeing that volunteering is a complete waste of time to seeing the article as a rant from someone with a chip on their shoulder! But it was nice to read some more balanced responses from young gap year volunteers about both the positives and negatives. For example, Josh who is doing an ICS placement in Kigali, posted a thoughtful, balanced response which shows a really good awareness of the issues and different sides of the argument about the impact of gap year volunteering. Very different from the “Prunellas” and “Ruperts” referred to in the article!
I could say so much more just about this, but the response generated by this article has been great. It is keeping the debate alive. I wanted to also share this post on the people and places blog. I think this really demonstrates that students and young people interested in volunteering in developing countries aren’t the stereotypes described in the Ritwik Deo’s article, they are self-aware and want to volunteer responsibly. They understand the issues and implications and want to find a project where they will be of some use and not cause any harm. I had a similar experience to people and places at a Global Health Fair at Oxford University earlier this week which was packed full of students who want to volunteer overseas. They were from a range of backgrounds, they were definitely not all white, British and posh and not all young as well – further education and gap years attract all ages! They asked lots of questions and were actively researching, trying to find the right organisation for them, where they could be of use.
I think the overiding message that has come across to me from all of the above is that stereotyping and viewing gap year volunteers as not able to contribute anything to development is not helpful. These are not the new colonialists, they are people genuinely wanting to doing something positive and beneficial in countries that are less well-off than their own while learning about how other cultures and societies live. Personally I would like to see more people taking such an interest in the world outside of their own bubble!