By: Yeeun Lee

Goods, services, and experiences are all commercialized in this day and age, and volunteering is no exception to this trend. In the West, altruism has turned into voluntourism: “a type of tourism where tourists pay to participate in development or conservation-oriented projects.”[1] Volunteering abroad is marketed as a ‘once in a lifetime experience’ whereby individuals create intimate relationships with those in need and in turn, make his or her life more fulfilling. Such a mindset contributes to the narrative that the West must, once again, accomplish its moral duty towards the poor nations around the world. It simplifies the tremendous issue of chronic poverty as something that can be alleviated through the good intentions of those who can afford and choose to go abroad and help. Among the many consequences, such an ideology can lead to culturally insensitive ways of helping others, which is seen through the attitudes and actions of voluntourists as well as implemented health interventions.

Volunteering and spending one’s own time and money to help others is noble in theory and most often stems from good intentions. However, those participating in voluntourism are frequently unaware of how culturally insensitive they are acting. Voluntourism sells the idea that voluntourists “sacrifice something” to go help others, and thus endorses the idea that these individuals are allowed to think and act in certain ways.

This issue is well represented in the satirical Instagram account for Barbie Savior. The Instagram account highlights how voluntourists feel like they can act in certain ways and do “jobs that they would never be allowed to do at home.” For instance, grabbing children as props for a photo or taking photos of people without their permission—and justifying this with the claim of  “helping to improve” their community. Buying into the idea of voluntourism makes people believe—consciously or unconsciously—that they are entitled to behave in these ways; it normalizes such behavior. Individuals would never consider it acceptable to act in such a way in a developed or their home country. In this manner, voluntourism can also affect how health interventions are planned and delivered.

A screen shot from Instragram showing a Barbie doll photoshopped in front of a community of dilapitated housing. The text says: "barbiesavior Just taking a #slumfie admist this dire poverty and need. Feeling so #blessed and #thankful that I have so much more than this and don't have to live this way! #slumfie #blessed #lucky #fortunate #mygoodlife #slumbarbiemillionaire #povertyporn #entertainingdevastation #ghettofabulous #slumming #slumminit"
An image from the Barbie Savior Instagram account

Volunteer organizations can sometimes implement health interventions that are not culturally appropriate, which causes more harm than good. For example, nutritional researcher Maya Roberts recounts a medical volunteer encounter she had in Guatemala. There, she observed a group of American tourists, who were not medical professionals, deliver duffle bags containing children’s multivitamins to an impoverished Mayan community. They handed a bag to every parent and told them that the vitamins would make their children healthy. Yet, they failed to consider the role of endemic parasitic infections and the fact that these multivitamins could actually harm local children.[2]

“Voluntourism depicts chronic poverty, underdevelopment, and health issues as a simple process that merely ‘require enthusiasm and labour from external groups.”

Roberts explained three ways this harm could occur. First, a child could take more vitamins than he is supposed to one sitting, causing constipation. The child would not only continue to have the parasites, but also have “vitamin-induced constipation” as well. Further, the vitamins could make the child feel better, but the next time he or she got sick, the mother may take them to a clinic where a physician could recommend another treatment. The mother may insist that she needs both, so when prescribed both by the physician, she heads to a pharmacy where she realizes she can only afford one—the vitamins or the treatment. Hence, she may opt to buy the familiar vitamins and not the unfamiliar drug. Finally, Roberts notes that, in Guatemala, vitamins are often injectable, rather than chewable. Taking the American volunteers’ advice of chewable multivitamins could increase “complications from nonsterile injections.” And so while the tourists had good intentions, their voluntourism actions may actually lead to more harm than good.

Voluntourism depicts chronic poverty, underdevelopment, and health issues as a simple process that merely “require enthusiasm and labour from external groups.”[3] It deems good intentions from the West as sufficient, leading to culturally insensitive actions and interventions. Enthusiasm, hope, and good intentions are certainly beneficial, but are not enough. The issue is that these become the main components of voluntourism opportunities and contribute to unintended, culturally insensitive consequences. Given the amount of time, resources, and money that goes into voluntourism, there is a need to consider the wider implications that such programs and ideologies have.

[1] Mostafanezhad, M., “Volunteer tourism and the popular humanitarian gaze.” Geoforum, 54, 111-118, 14 May 2014.

[2] Roberts, M., “Duffle bag medicine.” JAMA, 30 September 2008.

[3] Wallace, Lauren J., “Does pre-medical ‘voluntourism’ improve the health of communities abroad?” First Aid WorldWide, 1 August 2012.

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