The real beneficiaries of voluntourism

by Emma Trayte, Minerva Intern —

 

I don’t buy the idea that my generation, and the upcoming Gen Z are more philanthropic or driven to save the world than past generations, although Forbes Magazine and the Huffington Post say we are. Giving back isn’t new.

 

However, the opportunity to connect with people in other parts of the world easily and from the comfort of home is new. Through social media, young people are more aware of other countries – their landscapes, food, clothes, and people. We’re also more aware of people in the US and abroad suffering from poverty, injustice, and natural disasters. Take police brutality toward people of color: It is not new, but because of our ability to share the terrible videos of police officers using unnecessary and deadly force, movements like #BlackLivesMatter more easily pick up steam. Wanting to respond to these challenges is a normal human reaction, and the ease of connection makes it easier than ever to take action.

 

But not every action is a smart way to help people. Voluntourism is a good example. Many young people learn about extreme poverty or housing and food shortages and want to travel to other countries or poverty-stricken areas in the US to help others by building homes, distributing food, or teaching children.

 

Unfortunately, most young people aren’t skilled construction workers, supply train logisticians, or trained to teach children who have experienced the trauma of war, natural disasters, or extreme poverty. Many people head out on service trips to help, but do not have the necessary skills and knowledge to make a significant contribution. Even more detrimental, voluntourists with minimal professional skills may be depriving someone who could otherwise receive a much-needed wage to do what they are doing for free. Unskilled labor isn’t often at a shortage in places of need.

 

Another problem with voluntourism is that the money it costs to get to a place in need of aid probably outweighs the contribution one can make. It would be more beneficial to simply give the money spent on airline tickets to local organizations with a good track record.

 

This all sounds very cynical, but not all hope is lost. The important thing to remember when heading out on a well-planned service trip is whom the trip is for. Service trips are the most beneficial and meaningful for those that embark on them, not for those who receive services.

 

In 2013, I traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi on a service trip with the organization Back Bay Mission, a church-run group that was instrumental during Hurricane Katrina, and continues to provide emergency services for those living in poverty. Of course, this experience was nearly a decade after Katrina and almost 45 years after Hurricane Camille, but the effects of both added to the 2010 BP oil spill devastation were prevalent. The physical scars on the land and the shared memory of devastation amongst Biloxi’s residents were palpable, as was the frustration with the government for how poorly each disaster was handled.

 

As a small group of high school-age youth, we had no helpful skills to contribute, and were assigned to chopping potatoes in the local soup kitchen and painting homes for elderly members of the community. This allowed us to interact personally with people whose life experiences were nothing I had encountered before, and who left a profound impression on me.

 

I am in no way under the delusion that my week of sweating in the Mississippi heat changed anyone’s life, other than my own. This first foray from the familiarity of my hometown’s comfort was intentionally designed to teach us about generational poverty, systemic racism, and how aid organizations work. As a precursor for my college studies in the humanities and organizational leadership, it was effective.

 

This trip was voluntourism, but was neither volunteer work nor tourism, for three reasons:

 

1. It was not intended to be “fun.” There was no plan to experience tourist activities that did not contribute educational value. We did some fun things, like visit the local history museum, but that was in an effort to understand the history of Biloxi’s economy.

 

2. We understood that we were there to have experiences that would change our lives, not the lives of those around us. We were grateful for the opportunity to serve and learn; we didn’t expect any gratitude for our week’s worth of labor.

 

3. And finally we chose a time and place in which we could go without taking opportunity or resources from the local people. It taught me to pay attention to how my future work as a humanitarian can be more effective in disaster settings. As a person who wants to build a career out of helping others, this trip was excellent because I was given the opportunity to learn first-hand, what kind of programs and aid is needed and works.

 

Going and seeing the world is a wonderful thing. Learning from people who are less fortunate is a blessing and an experience that every generation should take advantage of. But self-development is not the same as service. If you go out into the world to serve, remember who should be feeling gratitude.