Who Are You Helping?

Words by Thiamando Pavlidis
Art by Gabby Parish

It was around three years ago when my mum answered the door to a girl from one of the nearby private schools who was selling homemade Christmas wreaths.

“I’m selling these to save money for a World Vision trip to Tunisia. We’re giving the children swimming lessons!”

Mum responded, “don’t they want water to drink? You, know, instead of swimming in?” The girl stared blankly, not knowing what to say.

Mum ended up buying a wreath, but once the door was closed and the girl was long gone, Mum muttered under her breath, “what a scam”.

Volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism”, is when you visit underprivileged communities around the world and offer aid, whether it’s teaching Tunisian children to swim or building a school in remote Nepal. However, as the world evolves, our understanding of voluntourism and the ethics behind are being questioned.

In Madonna’s 2008 documentary I Am Because We Were, she claimed that in the East-African country of Malawi, millions of children were being orphaned, living on the streets, or getting abducted and raped.

These claims are untrue, and promote an ill-informed world view of developing countries, one where they seemingly cannot function without the help of foreign aid and volunteering tourists. On the other hand, many underprivileged communities may be offered so much foreign aid that they become dependent on volunteer tourism for their economy. 

Cambodian orphanages are gaining infamy for their blatant exploitation of well-meaning tourists. UNICEF estimated that in 2011, almost three quarters of children living in ‘orphanages’ have at least one living parent, and around half of these children have been ‘bought’ or ‘rented’ by family members who make a profit from the child’s stint in the orphanage. These orphanages become tourist attractions, with foreigners paying to watch performances or just to visit, as well as donations they believe are going towards the maintenance of facilities. Unfortunately, many of these orphanages are intentionally kept in dilapidated conditions to attract more donations. Furthermore, no background or police checks are made on anyone visiting these orphanages, potentially putting the children at risk.

It isn’t just the countries receiving foreign aid who have turned volunteer tourism into a tool for exploitation. The intentions of many tourists visiting developing nations to volunteer are murky at best. Volunteering overseas is seen by many as an opportunity to boost their public image. When Becky poses in photos on Instagram with a group of seemingly malnourished children, Becky looks like she’s a kind individual who braves the heat to support those less fortunate than her.

However, this empathy runs skin deep, as many issues facing the communities they’re volunteering for are over-simplified.

That being said, misinformed high school graduates still mean well. This cannot be said for a number of other volunteer tourists. Just last year, a scandal broke out when it was revealed that aid workers from non-profit organisation Oxfam were taking advantage of sex workers and abusing children in the communities they were offering aid to. It was also revealed that many of these volunteers had not had the appropriate background and criminal record checks that should be required.

More often than not, it’s not the individual workers causing problems, but the organisations themselves who use their platform as a means of promoting their own agenda. This agenda is usually religious, and there are organisations that may prioritise communities that follow the same religion as their own. There are also instances where religious organisations may enforce their religious beliefs on a community before offering the necessary aid required. It’s worth thinking about when you’re forking over thousands of dollars just to live in a very poor community for a couple weeks.

This article, however, is not designed to deter you from partaking in volunteer tourism.

Rather, it’s asking you to think about where you volunteer and what you can do to make a lasting change. Here are some things to consider:

Pick the right organisation for you! 

Make sure you understand not only the aims and achievements of the organisation but where every dollar you’ve invested in this opportunity goes towards.

How will you make a difference? 

Work out how you specifically can help to offer sustainable aid. It’s also worth considering donating the money you would spend on the trip directly to the organisation. Sometimes money can do more than you can. 

Do your research! 

Learn the customs and norms of the country you’re about to visit. Leave the saviour complex at home.

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