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Akachukwu Nwosu: Poor People are not Photo Props

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In July of 2015, while sitting in my humid, candle-lit bedroom in Lagos Nigeria, my older sister and I engaged in one of our many meaningful conversations. As the first person in our family to study in a prestigious American university, she occasionally returned home with compelling tales of her experiences while living abroad. On this particular summer evening, the crux of our dialogue centered around how she had grown tired of seeing her privileged classmates temporarily volunteer in developing African countries.

“What could possibly be wrong with traveling to a poor community to help those in need?” I fiercely retorted. I also remember arguing that most African governments had already failed their people, thus, there ought to be no condemnation for any foreigner who stepped in to lend a helping hand. Little did I know that when it came to topics like this, there is so much more than meets the eye.

When we think of volunteering, we envision commendable acts of service. We think of catering to society’s most vulnerable members, raising money to fight social injustices, or bounteously giving back to less fortunate communities. With little to no critical thinking, one could easily conclude that such gestures promote the spirit of altruism and generosity. But what happens when the act of doing good transmutes into a billion-dollar-industry focused on profit-making and personal fulfilment, rather than actually instigating change? Perhaps, that is when volunteering turns into “Voluntourism”.

Coined by a combination of the words “volunteer” and “tourism”, the term voluntourism perfectly synopsizes the culture of young wealthy volunteers traveling to developing countries to ‘help’ those in need. Characterized by short term trips which often last from a few days to about three months, these programs generally feature temporary interventions that are designed to address health, economic and environmental issues in resource-poor settings.

The African continent is particularly a popular destination for this growing travel trend. With a riveting interest in countries like Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, more and more western university students are spending a smallfraction of their summer holidays “helping those in need”, while Christian churches are traveling on mission trips to build infrastructure in the hearts of penurious villages. Albeit the result of these fleeting escapades fuel personal growth and the satisfaction of making a difference, such short-term voluntourism has actually proven to be unsustainable, unhelpful, and even damaging to the community receiving support.

The volunteering industry is controversial for many reasons, and certain establishments like placement agencies largely contribute to the problem. Given that they serve as the primary connection between volunteers and non-profit organizations, most placement agencies keep their business afloat by exorbitantly charging travelers for an opportunity to volunteer in a community that has so little. According to Global Crossroad, a leading international volunteer vacation organization, the cost of a volunteer abroad program can range anywhere between $200 to $3000 for just 2 weeks. In poorer countries where every penny could go far, this same amount of money could be used to pay the salaries of several village teachers, community leaders and even healthcare practitioners. 

Flights from the United States to popular volunteering destinations like Uganda, for example, usually start from about 1,000 US Dollars. In addition to flights, volunteers are often charged with the responsibility of covering additional expenses such as vaccinations, travel insurance, lodging and meals, all of which surely doesn’t cost a pretty penny.

For every expense that is incurred trying to get one inexperienced traveler to his/her volunteer project, at least one local worker could have been paid to do the exact same job. It is therefore crucial to acknowledge the fact that placement agencies indirectly benefit from outsourcing foreigners to perform temporary labor, which in return, denies employment from local workers who probably need these work opportunities the most.

Another contributor to this problematic travel trend is the voluntourists themselves. While many may think that their intentions are rooted in the generic desire to help those in need, it is also important to question why they need to travel across the world to do so.

Africa may be a popular volunteer destination because it is statistically proven to be the poorest continent on the planet. But the reality is this: there is poverty everywhere, including in economically advanced metropolises like New York, Los Angeles, and London. Why then, do we not see an influx of wealthy foreigners volunteering in these cities at a rapid pace, just like they do in Africa? Perhaps, it is because helping impoverished people in developing countries generally allows for an opportunity to look more selfless. It provides a space where privileged volunteers can create media-worthy, pity-evoking content, compared to if they were helping at their local homeless shelter.

Lest we forget, the infamous photos of foreign volunteers posing with poor children of color does not help matters either. If anything, it further perpetuates the false narrative that all of Africa is sick and suffering. Alongside these photos are usually lengthy captions that encapsulate how the volunteer’s life has changed through his or her “eye-opening experience”. 

A 2014 article in The Onion mocks voluntourism, joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s Facebook profile picture.”  The article quotes “22-year old Angela Fisher” who says:

“I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders.” It goes on to say that Fisher “has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.”

This type of social media content is all too common, and further buttresses the fact that voluntourism is a means to an end to someone’s learning objective. In a post originally shown on Sociological Images, Lauren Kascak and Sayantani Dasgupta eloquently concluded that “voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit” (2014). 

This trend, indeed, has very little to do with the community supposedly receiving help.

Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole coined the term “white savior industrial complex.” in an article with The Atlantic, where he argued about how powerful people simplify complex problems in other countries to construct a space for themselves to feel good about making a difference. The systemic issues that developing countries face are truly too complicated for ‘voluntourists’ to fix through their short-term services. Rural communities deserve more than that.

We can only solve the problems of voluntourism through one thing, and that is by pushing for more long-term commitment. Orphaned children do not need foreign students singing and dancing with them for a few days. Impoverished families do not need temporary vacationers who stop by their ramshackle homes to help them with running water. Destitute communities do not need new volunteers who hop in and hop out every other month to feel good about themselves. What they need is stability. They need helpers and guardians who are willing to support them for the long-haul. They need sustainable solutions that will bring their communities out of the humanitarian crises they’re in.

If you are not going to travel to a developing community with the goal of delving deeper into their needs, or at least staying long enough to actually monitor the progress being made in their society, then I respectfully ask that you do not go. Poor people are not photo props, and their situation is not a means to an end for anyone’s personal or travel goals either. They are human beings, just like me and you, who are deserving of genuine and meaningful acts of service. 

This article is in no way an effort to shame international volunteers or vilify the practice of altruism amongst people in different communities. After all, Aristotle aptly said that “the essence of life is to serve others and do good.” The goal here, however, is to call on foreigners to volunteer with a different approach to community development.

It is generous, but simply not enough, to build schools in a village and then leave, because that school will need to be managed, staffed, and maintained for years to come. 

So before you jump headfirst into a volunteer abroad project, think hard about whether your position is indirectly stripping locals off job opportunities, and if your time there is long enough to make any enduring economic or social impacts. 

Sources Cited

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 11 Jan. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/.

“How Much Does It Cost to Volunteer Abroad?” Volunteer Abroad, www.globalcrossroad.com/volunteer-abroad-cost-expenses/.

Kascak , Lauren, and Sayantani DasGupta . “#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism – Sociological Images.” Sociological Images InstagrammingAfrica The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism Comments, The Society Pages, 29 Dec. 2014, thesocietypages.org/socimages/2014/12/29/instragrammingafrica-the-narcissism-of-global-voluntourism/.

Misachi, John. “The Continents Of The World Per Capita GDP.” WorldAtlas, 4 May 2017, www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-continents-of-the-world-by-gdp-per-capita.html.

The Onion. “6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture.” The Onion, The Onion, 28 Jan. 2014, www.theonion.com/6-day-visit-to-rural-african-village-completely-changes-1819576037.

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Akachukwu Nwosu is a NewsWireNGR Contributor and she writes from the US.

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