An article titled “The Problem with Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist” went viral in February with over two million views. In this article, blogger Pippa Biddle recounts her experiences during trips to Tanzania to build a library and to the Dominican Republic to set up a camp for HIV+ children.
Biddle explains that she and her fellow volunteers were insufficiently prepared to do the work that was necessary.
She stated, “I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries.”
During her trip to Tanzania, local workers were required to take down and restart the work volunteers had done on the library so that it would be built properly.
The summer after freshman year, I took a volunteer trip to Costa Rica. I looked through the multitude of colorful packets, thinking I would be going somewhere for Spanish immersion, saw the words “community service” and thought something along the lines of, “Oh cool, I’ll do that.”
I purposefully chose Costa Rica because it seemed like a softer option, as I would be among the youngest participants, and because I would have the opportunity to practice my Spanish there. My organization of choice, Global Routes, was known to be one of the more rugged ones, which was something I wanted.
I decided that if I liked my experience I could go to Africa or some place a little more intense during a later summer.
I did have a great time on my trip. My group spent about a week in the rainforest, hiking, raking leaves off of trails and power washing moss off of the research center driveway. We then traveled to a small community and built a classroom while living with local Costa Rican families. Our group also painted a world map on a blank wall, complete with the logo of the travel company in the upper left corner. Our last week was spent at the beach.
When I went home I did not feel like I had dramatically changed the world. I had been on a trip, it was fun in a meaningful way and that was the end. I did not think much more about it.
The classroom was not quite finished when we left; there were walls and a roof and we had filled in the floor with cement but there was still a lot to be done. Some of the money students had fundraised prior to the trip was used to pay local men to finish the job.
The day of our departure, we met at the school to catch the bus and saw them working far more quickly and efficiently than we ever could. The giant piles of cement that had taken us up to twenty minutes to create from start to finish were done in maybe five by them.
Reading Biddle’s article, I wondered how much quicker the classroom would have been built, and how much more could have been accomplished had these local men been doing the work the whole time.
Biddle argues that in developing countries, voluntourism is not only unhelpful to communities, but it also is “detrimental” as “it slows down positive growth and perpetuates the ‘white savior’ complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.”
One of Biddle’s largest arguments is that the money students spend to go on these trips (which is not a small sum by any means) should be used to pay local professionals who have the necessary skills to complete the task efficiently.
While this is wonderful in theory, when people pay for volunteer trips they are not just paying for that new classroom; they are paying for an experience. In my case, and in many others, they are also paying for the extra week at the beach or in the rainforest.
I do not regret going to Costa Rica. When all is said and done there is now a new, badly needed classroom. We did not change the world, but we did some good for one community, and I am proud of that. I am not sure if it would have been done without service trips like the one I went on.
I completely agree that voluntourism is not a practical means of assisting developing countries, unless the tourists do have the essential skills. It is, however, a profitable industry.
My advice to anyone who is considering going on a volunteer trip this summer or in future summers is to think about what you want. If you want a fun and meaningful experience, go for it.
If you want to truly help a community, you might want to consider taking a different path, or even shifting your focus to problems closer to home.
Biddle concludes her article saying, “I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning….I want her to think about her teacher, community leader or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to—who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.”
I think we can all agree that this is a lovely vision for the future, one that will hopefully come to pass.