The Voluntourist’s Dilemma

While scrolling through my Facebook feed as a welcome distraction from the midweek workload, I stumbled upon pictures from my friend’s service trip to Guatemala over Easter Break. The photos from her five-day trip featured members of her group holding babies, smiling while young girls braided their hair, and taking selfies with kids from the local village. In every picture, both the volunteers and the children had big smiles on their faces, yet I couldn’t help but feel a mixed reaction to the message the album implied. On one hand, I found it admirable that she devoted time otherwise spent relaxing at home to serve others. On the other hand, the posed pictures made me question whether the volunteers were there to truly serve the locals or simply offer a philanthropic tone to their social media profiles. The trip seemed less about volunteerism and more about sightseeing, photo-taking “voluntourism.”

I first learned about voluntourism in a high school ethics class. Some classmates argued that the hybrid of tourist vacation and volunteer service enables participants to enjoy the best of both trips—to explore a new part of the world while giving a positive contribution to the communities they visit. Most people, however, believed that voluntourism exploits the lives of people in need to collect college essay topics and Instagram photos under an altruistic façade. They suggested that one week’s worth of projects in rural towns is just half-hearted, feel-good busywork that blindly ignores the greater issues that can’t be fixed in a week’s work: poverty, education and health care inequalities, and underdeveloped infrastructure and economies. One student argued that a much more effective strategy would be to spare the money otherwise spent flying volunteers to in-need countries and instead donate it directly to the locals so they can dictate the allocation of funds as they see fit.    

Later that summer, I felt the guilty pangs of voluntourism firsthand. During a mission trip to Birmingham, Ala., it seemed that people always rolled out the red carpet to serve us. We were given air-conditioned sleeping rooms, on-site showers, and homemade meals every night at our work sites. We enjoyed day trips to Birmingham’s beautiful botanical gardens and walked the historic paths of national leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. While I was so grateful for their hospitable treatment, I found myself struggling to reconcile the feeling that they had done more to serve me than I had done to serve them. I quickly realized just how easy it is to fall into the spiral of cynicism surrounding volunteer trips.

I found myself wondering if we should have saved the travel expenses and offered people money instead. Certainly my conversations up to this point seemed to suggest so. But in an effort to play devil’s advocate, I’d like to offer an alternative perspective.

In June 2016, I had the opportunity to travel to Port-au-Prince, Haiti for 10 days with my parish. In many ways, my experiences largely mirrored those in Birmingham: Women cooked feasts of homemade Creole food and even the children—despite what little they had—tried to offer us their pencils, bottle can soccer balls, and hair scrunchies as gifts. At first I resisted their generosity. I felt bad for taking advantage of the people that I was supposed to be serving. As the week progressed, however, the Haitian sisters with whom we worked encouraged us to embrace the kindness they offered to us. We allowed the locals to show us their homes and schools with pride. We offered our undivided attention as they shared their stories with us. When our lunchtime chats with locals extended beyond our meal breaks, the sisters encouraged us to stay and continue talking, allowing the conversation to develop organically. We spent our days playing with the children, sometimes long after we were supposed to return back to our site for dinner that night.

We were asked to leave our phones and cameras at home while we visited our work sites. We still engaged with the people, played with the children, witnessed firsthand the conditions that were so strikingly different from ours—we just didn’t photograph them. We were forced to take mental pictures and store the memories in our minds, to lose ourselves so fully in the moment that we often failed to realize when it was time to go back to work because we weren’t constantly interrupting the moment to take photos or check the time.

Admittedly, this total absorption occasionally tapped into our productivity as our pickup soccer games and leisurely conversations cut into designated work time. Were we as successful or efficient as if we had simply given the people money to complete the projects themselves? Well, that depends on how you define success—earlier I would have argued no. This trip, however, taught me that the true measure of a project’s success is not in terms of financial or physical performance results. You are not there to build wells or paint houses or tutor students because the people living there can’t or don’t know how. On the contrary, your mere presence demonstrates that you are there because you care about them. You appreciate their humanity beyond the simple project at which you throw your funds or the photo that you post to your Instagram.

Furthermore, I realized that yes, you are there to serve others, but also to allow others to serve you. They take pride in offering their homes, sharing their meals, partaking in a simple game of soccer with you. Though you may go with the intention of serving them, respect their dignity enough to realize that you can learn just as much, if not more, from them than you could ever offer. It is not a giving competition. And it does not devalue your service when you simultaneously receive valuable lessons and establish powerful human connection. Most importantly, exercise discretion in photographing the communities that you serve. They are not our charity cases, and their stories are often best shared in their own words. Allow your experiences to live vibrantly in your memory, but honor the integrity of the moment enough to know when the story is better told by those who live it every day.

Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor