The Problem with Today’s Voluntourist and Charity Culture | Rise of NGO-Colonialism

Voluntourism; in brief, a culture resting on privilege which promotes individuals to travel to another country which they label as the ‘third world’, to do again as they label ‘charitable work’. Now if you’re in a school or university environment like myself, it is an area where the concept of travelling abroad and voluntourism is encouraged and heavily sought by students, and on their return from having ‘broadened perspectives’ and ‘changed their way of life’ they boast about their time in this poor impoverished community, digging wells, teaching about HIV and playing with the kids. It always strikes me how self-involved we are, how greatly important we feel about ourselves, to suggest that we are of something, to go to these communities, who by the way didn’t invite us, to come to their neighbourhoods, trod on their culture, without any understanding of their history, traditions or politics in a venture to help them and discover ourselves. When did we, young adults living in the western world become of any importance and carry such skill to disturb these communities with our self-rightousness? I’m pretty damn sure Kenyans knew how to build wells before your family came into existence and can do a lot more for their communities than our visits of 4 weeks.

Now in the last two decades voluntourism has soared.  The desire of privileged young people who think their great enough to do good whilst having a blast has been made into a money generating colonialist scheme hijacked and turned to profit by travel agents. In 2007, the University of London found that more than 800 organisations were providing volunteering opportunities in 200 countries. Majority of these organisations charge quite large amounts of money, or demand an amount to be fundraised, which actually would cheaper if you were to save up for yourself and go simply as a traveller to understand ones surroundings. Such experiences offered mostly to students and young adults is sold as ‘career enhancing’ (shout out to good old capitalism), becoming a simple easy adventure, one that is extensively photographed to share on Facebook and brag to friends about what you did during summer.

“This is so going on Facebook!”

Now of course there are those of us who do not seek to fuel our ego’s and understand that our presence in communities in the global south can very well be more harmful than anything. But at the same time you wish to go to India, you wish to go to Zambia, you wish to travel and see the world, and if you can, you should. And the question to ask here is how? Before going on any trip that is beyond the borders of the West (US and Europe), you pick the country you’re interested in, perhaps you’ve always been interested in it, but don’t know much about it right? Here you sit and read. You read extensively about their history first, then their politics, then social structure, the culture, the traditions, speak to diaspora of that country, research for some organisations you can visit, and once you do this, it’s almost like having been there whilst sat in the 4 walls of your bedroom. Once you have equipped yourself with the required knowledge of the country you intend to visit, your experience will be much much different than if you hadn’t. Having read up on your destination, you probably might even decide to learn a bit of the language, in which you will find not only is it easier for you to roam around, but you can talk to the people. It’s an attempt to communicate with them, as opposed to being a strange subject with a fixed smile that has come just to observe animals of an reservation. The very desire to learn about the very destination in which you wish to visit, is an act of respect.

So let’s go through a few ethical questions to ask ourselves before we consider galavanting into far stretches of the planet as asked in this article:

I want to work at an orphanage. No. Paying money to orphanages to interact with the orphans commodifies who they are, as well as directly creating a market for orphans. For instance orphanages in Cambodia (Siem Reap) were exposed having children with parents or relatives, and these orphanages would pay a sum for these kids to convince gullible voluntourists that it’s all for the well being of these children. Of course orphans do exist, and say the orphanage is legitimate, there wouldn’t be a problem in helping out right? Again, no. Young children need to be able to bond and develop relationships with their carers in orphanage settings, allowing foreigners to come along and hug these kids every few weeks for  various periods of time has negative pyschological effects, it creates and fuels an abandoning relationship for the child whilst satisfying you, emotionally. Secondly, if the given orphanage lacks to run any background checks and interviews with you, it is incredibly irresponsible to let you interact with the children, and these ethical reasons can also apply to other children related environments calling out for international volunteers.

OK, I want to build something. Start off by looking at how the project works, who you will be working with, how will you be working with them, it is a community led project that has given consent to allow international help? Check that the NGO has a development plan for the community, an actual self sustainable development initiative that the locals can uphold in the long run. (With that being said I am shamelessly going to promote the community led housing project in the occupied West Bank that I have co-founded with Palestinians, Marmara Housing Project, as well as Jordan Valley Solidarity another fantastic community led initiative for the marginalised in JV, additionlly there are plenty of NGO’s in occupied Palestine, normalising the occupation, organising ‘trips’ which is the latest trend suggesting Palestinians can’t speak English to let the world know of their struggle is displayed via a white male’s initiative ‘Welcome to Gaza‘. At the end of this article I will include organisations that are ethical to go with to Palestine as I know many of you do).

And last but not least, the money issue. It is worth quizzing the NGO co-ordinator about how much of the money you’re giving them actually is being contributed towards the community, and as NGO’s they are required to provide you with such information if you wish. If it’s a building project, ask how much of the material is bought locally? Why cannot locals themselves build these homes? Wouldn’t your participation as an unskilled participant might be best directed at doing work that will allow local community members to practice their professions in a paid capacity onsite. Such approaches promote employment, get things built faster, and support the local economy.Development starts with supporting what services and materials the community can provide already, not destroying local initiative by bringing in tools, materials and skills that are currently available.

But the real question that you need to then ask yourself is; why am I doing this?

Now if you are a native of the West, or someone who cannot return to their homeland to contribute to the growth and education of their community for whatever reason, yet want to do charitable work (abroad..) what about where you already live? What about the millions where you are who need support and help? The elderly (who are seen as burden here in the West), the single mother with her teens in trouble, or her child with a disability receiving no state support? What about the youth lost searching for an identity and direction in this society? Knowing all you know about the country, the law, the socio-infrastructure, could your skills not be of great use here instead?

Which brings me onto the scope of aid and charity in general. Specifically for Africa as for some reason Africa is synonymous with charity, and its last name is poverty. There you see it. A pair of large, staring eyes that belong to an African boy suffering from kwashiorkor, to a scene of a little girl trailing bare footed on narrow dirt paths of a shanty town in Delhi, captioned with ‘sponsor for £2 a month’ are all too familiar. They look out to us from television adverts, magazines, and from billboards everyday. They – and many other images like them – have been made to be the public faces of the multi million aid industry suggesting good will and philanthropy and nothing else.

Yet there is a significant problem with charities in our societies today. Corporatised charities/NGO’s (same institution). Which is funny because charity is in fact a result of capitalism’s ills, a result of its imperialist arm, colonialist leg, exploitative hand, racist tongue and patriarchal mind. Now to give charity is a selfless, pure and compassionate act, humanising both the giver and taker in todays consumerist society, allowing detachment from our materialistic values. To be at the service of each other is a beautiful thing, but under capitalism such activities are curtailed by doctrine of rampant competition that is incessantly rammed down our throats. Nevertheless humans continue to work together, and usually try their best to lend a helping hand to those who need it. Capitalists correctly see any such displays of solidarity as a meaningful threat to their ongoing exploitation of the working class. So the bourgeois strives to ensure that any form of aid is constrained to the rules of the capital, making the institution of charity completely different. Charitable activities are made to be largely contained within a world of corporatised organisations – perpetuating the capitalist system that causes the problems that charities seemingly seek to redress. The organised, or rather corporate charity represents a collective of people claiming to be charitable themselves whilst asking for money from us, with different roles in the charity. The moral impetus is no longer personal, and the motives behind it are no longer singular. To sum up, things get complicated.

White Celebrity Saviour Complex

Throughout the developing world (they are not the third world)thousands of Non-Governmental Organisations are engaged in assisting the impoverished, the downtrodden, and the unfortunate. While their specific objectives might vary, their broad goal is to simply “help.” Medicines San Frontiers provides medical care, Save the Children well, says to be saving children, and the International Rescue Committee focuses on refugee work. Hundreds more are apparently building schools, clean water, good governance, the environment, and the latest trend, gender issues. Of course we mustn’t forget the extensive line of United Nation sponsored bids, the UN development programme, World Food programme, UN High Commissioner for refugees and let me not even get started on the ‘Goodwill’ Celebrity Ambassadors for the UN (or philanthropist celebrities). US Agency for International Development (US AID), British Department for International Development (DFID), and last but not least, the sharks of all sharks, the World Bank and IMF.

In 2008, governments of developed countries spent $120 billion on foreign aid and over the last 50 years, developed countries have given as much as $2.3 trillion in foreign aid and yet there is still an overwhelming amount of poverty. Private NGO’s have contributed billions of dollars more. So we have to ask the question. Has it done any good? Maybe, on some small micro scale, some individuals from refugees have been housed, some have been fed, some children have been vaccinated and some rape victims counselled. But at a macro level the answer is a resounding no. The net effect of the trillions of dollars and billions of man hours spent helping Africa and the rest of the developing world prosper has been negligible and possibly negative. The road to poverty appears to be paved with aid dollars. Now I do not want to get into the nitty gritty theoretical and statisical side of why aid does not work (lack of direction, programming, overseeing, corruption, installing own agendas and liberalism, hence colonialism etc), it has been covered academically, and if you’re interested further in this topic, Dead Aid by Dambiso Moyo is a good place to start.

It’s a custom for those of us who are more privileged to help the poor, to offer charity. Most often we use charity to avoid recognising the problem and finding the solution for it. Charity becomes a way to shrug off our responsibility. But charity is no solution to poverty. Charity allows us to go ahead with our own lives without worrying about the lives of the poor. Charity appeases our consciences. Charity prolongs the crisis by hacking at the branches instead of at its root. It’s a product created and sustained by the economic and social systems that have been designed  for us; the institutions and concepts that make up that system; the policies that we allow to be pursued. The current existing status of Africa, and the global south in general is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poverty, the conflicts are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalised by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.

I do not mean to discredit the work of genuine, well meant charities that do manage to better the lives of others on a micro scale, but it is a rare activity, and the only successful ones are community led development projects. Whether its a young adult workshop or a project to build and teach their own. And yes charities have the ability to bring awareness about a particular situation – but they do so whilst maintaining the crisis through aid instead of implementing projects that allows the development self-sustained communities. And believe me Africa can feed itself, its us who can’t and thus require IMF, World Bank and the charitable capitalists to make sure Africa is dependant on us.

Charity isn’t a substitute for justice. If we never challenge a social order that allows some to accumulate wealth–even if they decide to help the less fortunate–while others are short-changed, then even acts of kindness end up supporting unjust arrangements. We must never ignore the injustices that make charity necessary, or the inequalities that make it possible.

Think about it. A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity.

” People find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence…It is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor. But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it… Charity degrades and demoralises… Charity creates a multitude of sins.” – Oscar Wilde

International Solidarity Movement

Marmara Housing Project

Jordan Valley Solidarity Project

Youth Against Settlements

Camden Abu Dis Friendship Association

16 responses to “The Problem with Today’s Voluntourist and Charity Culture | Rise of NGO-Colonialism

  1. Pingback: The Problem with Today's Voluntourist and Charity Culture | Rise of NGO-Colonialism | decolonizing the curriculum |·

  2. Once again, a really amazing article and it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. A friend of mine is in Cambodia at the moment, visiting an orphange. Reading this article now, makes me have mixed feelings when seeing her post pictures of her posing with the kids and then relaxing by a pool. It’s almost as if ‘helping the poor’ has become a glamourised adventure to us in the west. Today, when we see people suffering, we are able to hand a cheque to a charity and it eases of consciences and we able to go on with our daily lives.
    I’ve always wanted to be involved in charities but I’ve realised that my classmates and I have only really become proactive now,because of how universities and colleges like to see it on cv’s. Sometimes it makes you stop and think about the intentions behind your actions. Thank you for the article and for shedding light on an issue that many more people should look into.

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  5. …writes the girl who has been to Palestine twice as a volunteer and uploaded an album named “45 days in Palestine” shared pictures of herself with little kids, doing guerilla graffiti on the walls, patrolling the streets of Hebron etc.
    what makes you different than people like Harry Fear? oh yeah, he is white and you are not, but guess what, you are not Palestinian either.
    I have been following you for soooo long and admired you actually.. obviously I was also your facebook friend, so I wasn’t going to be this mean but you really disappointed me with your tweets about him. it’s astonishing because I can’t really see the difference between your intentions and his.
    who are you? what skills do you have to help? at least he is a filmmaker!
    yes it’s right, you can’t actually be racist towards white people, but your attitude towards people you don’t even know isn’t acceptable either.

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    • Woman* not a girl. Secondly I was 19 when I first went, I’m somewhat describing a part of me in this article. This stems from experience. However what I did in Palestine was Palestinian-led. I went with my own money, I went with an understanding of the language, culture and history. Were there times I exercised privilege? Definitely. Having international passport was a privilege. Being able to visit it whilst a million other Palestinian’s couldn’t is a privilege. The second time I went I learnt my place, I had a personal crisis, I questioned my intentions, how much I could actually help even. I had days where I’d stay home and Palestinian’s would come to see me and console me that I wasn’t like the other abyads because I understood the struggle. But nonetheless I felt like I was being an abyad. I really don’t give a shit whether you admired me, and that you were a ‘facebook friend’. Harry ‘Fear’ is a middle class white guy who has described the Palestinians in the most orientalist way, has made several statements to prominent Palestinian activists that have questioned him that were overtly white saviour like. Here’s an article that touches up on him,

      Kind of sad how you want to rebuke my past actions in where this article clearly manifests from, from actually asking what makes Harry a white saviour. That’s all I have to say to you anonymous stranger (an old facebook friend but quite cowardly writing to me here).

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  6. Reblogged this on MEDIA SCHMEDIA and commented:
    When people question/challenge why we have inequality, homelessness, poverty, injustice etc, smug conservatives are always punching out lines like “PC agenda” and “communism” and advocate for this whole individualistic culture that says if people work hard/they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps get somewhere in life, yet they go and ‘volunteer’ overseas in a country they weren’t even invited to in the first place, on the premise that their whiteness/first-world-ness means they can “save” people in developing countries because they’re “backward” and aren’t equipped with the mentality/skills to help themselves. E.g. the idea that non-white people in developing countries are uncivilised, backward, primitive…… etc. Such hypocrisy. One of my favourite quotes: “Don’t teach kids that the ‘third world’ needs saving, teach them it needs recovery from centuries of being exploited to build the first world.” Hiya my first world privilege relied on colonialism exploiting your people/resources/language/culture, and now I’m here to push my BS cultural imperialist agenda and SAVE you by civilising/modernising/progressing you… i.e. Westernising you.

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  7. Pingback: The Problem with Today's Voluntourist and Chari...·

  8. Well, 2000 years ago when in Kenya nobody had a clue of what a well was, my family was making aqueducts. I think that qualifies me to teach them one thing or two of those matters their culture had failed to produce, e.g. philosophy, mathematics, literature, agriculture… or the wheel. Yeah, we can give them means and loads of money and leave them on theirselves, but one Liberia is enough.

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  9. I agree with many of the points about ‘voluntourism’, but I think you need to consider some claims towards the end of this article. For example:

    “In 2008, governments of developed countries spent $120 billion on foreign aid and over the last 50 years, developed countries have given as much as $2.3 trillion in foreign aid and yet there is still an overwhelming amount of poverty. Private NGO’s have contributed billions of dollars more. So we have to ask the question. Has it done any good?”

    -A few trillions in foreign aid spread over billions of people works out as a few tens of dollars per recipient.

    -If economic growth is your sole criteria, then perhaps you would still expect less poverty despite only a few tens of dollars going to each recipient. But why only consider financial wealth?

    -If we consider the impact on global health, foreign aid has been highly successful. I’ve detailed some of its achievements here:

    Briefly, aid has helped:
    -eradicate smallpox,
    -nearly eradicate polio,
    -nearly eradicate guinea-worm disease,
    -nearly eradicate River Blindness,
    -significantly reduce the burden of malaria
    -significantly increase vaccine coverage against pneumonia and measles
    -Begin to reduce the burden of neglected tropical diseases

    Generally, the point should be that aid *can* work, if given to programs that are backed up by strong evidence. In the past, this hasn’t always been the case, and much aid has been wasted (and maybe caused harm). But support charities/aid that have strong evidence, and a lot of good can be achieved:

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    • Just to clarify:
      -a few trillions in foreign aid spent over half a century spread over billions of people works out as a few tens of dollars per recipient per year.

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  10. This article is interesting for me, largely because I went to the Philippines for a month in 2012, and stayed with an orphanage. My plan was to give some music lessons and to help out on the grounds, but I soon realised just how pathetic I really was as a human being in comparison to basically everyone I met. I’m not particularly strong, and it would be kind to say that my general social skills are passable. I also failed first aid at school. The only reason I was able to be there was because I had some savings from not spending the money my parents had given me as an allowance over a number of years. However, it did give me a more developed perspective of the world, and the experience certainly adds to my profile as a philosophy student. My advice is to think very carefully about whether you can actually add anything to the lives of the people you are visiting, or if you just want a new experience.

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  11. I would feel better sharing this article with intelligent persons (not “person’s”) if there (not “their” or “they’re”) weren’t so many (SO… MANY…) glaring spelling, grammar and punctuation errors throughout. Which is unfortunate, because it makes some great points.

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    • funny only a white pretentious prick like you has a problem with the article because of its ‘glaring spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes” but yet here you are reading it huh with over 600 people having shared it, how about you run along and go fuck yourself. this is a white pretentious male free zone.

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  12. Pingback: Resist, Revive & Revolt | L5 VISUAL COMMUNICATION·

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