If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, “voluntourism” offers some of us an express ticket down that route. As many media channels, including NPR, have pointed out, volunteer tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments within the global travel industry. But depending on one’s perspective, voluntourism is either a way to help some people in need or have something to brag about at the cocktail party upon one’s return — or even to pad that college application or resume.
To that end, an Instagram account called Barbie Savior has gone viral, which features depictions of the Mattel beauty and pokes fun at those who have put helping Africans on their bucket list. “Who needs a formal education to teach in Africa? Not me!” Barbie says from a classroom in a hut somewhere in the Serengeti. Another post, a barb directed at Christian volunteer groups and Taylor Swift’s vapid “Wildest Dreams” Africa-esque video (which shows fewer Africans than giraffes), Barbie exults: “I never knew God would choose me to be such an important part in Africa!”
There is no doubt that plenty of the people who visit Africa, Southeast Asia or India to build schools, work on water projects or spend time teaching orphans do so as a measure of goodwill instead of ensuring their Facebook or other social media feeds show off how wonderful and progressive they are. But as many news outlets have shown, doing what many of us see as grunt work crowds out employment opportunities for local people.
Unless your daily routine involves picking up a hammer, the labor you provide for free (well, for which you are paying a tour operator, truthfully) can often be done more effectively by a local — as even the vanguard travel publication, Conde Nast Traveler, colorfully described in an article on the relief effort in Haiti. Bottom line: If a community has not been consulted and included in the process, whether it is building homes or launching an education program, sadly, the chances are very high that such a well-intended plan will fail.
Going beyond failure, one tragedy resulting from another feel-good volunteer tourism scheme is the AIDS orphan tourism trend. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, not only did children suffer from emotional damage due to the short-term attachments they formed with their visitors, but many children were even exploited for commercial gain by tour operators. And as Professor Linda Richter of South Africa has explained, far too many of those children are not even orphans, but rather have been placed into these homes by desperately poor parents.
Exhaustively fact-checking a purported “volunteering” trip before committing to such a journey is one way to minimize the risk that your visit could cause more damage than benefit. Supporting businesses that are actually finding ways to ensure sustainable economic development is another path toward “doing good” abroad.
Eschewing expensive tours for independent travel, and spending your money at local guest houses and restaurants that are committed to social welfare locally, is another way to satisfy that craving to do good and experience a different culture. And in the end, you will see that country not just as a hub of poverty, but as a complex society steeped in traditions, atmosphere and, yes, optimism.
Travel should be about experiencing and celebrating the place for what it is, not for designing an experience to make you feel a certain way.
Image credit: Barbie Savior via Instagram
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.