Should I keep quiet about my niece's voluntourism?

As their unqualified family member plans a teaching trip to Ghana, a reader turns to the New Internationalist Agony Uncle for advice.

A person with long hair writes the word volunteer on a blackboard

Q: My 18-year-old niece is planning to spend two months volunteering at a village school in Ghana. I feel instinctively the whole premise is wrong in so many ways (she doesn’t even have any teaching experience!), but I don’t want to pour cold water on her plans and new-found excitement about the wider world. Her parents also like the idea of her being under the supervision of a volunteer company for her first trip to a new continent. Should I keep my concerns about voluntourism to myself?

A: Your question goes to the heart of internationalism. Indeed, this magazine has long been concerned with the difference between charity and solidarity, probing dilemmas about how one – assuming that ‘one’ is in relative comfort and safety – should act. Look to the archive to find issues titled ‘Tourism in the Third World’ (1984), ‘Wisdom from Above: but do Experts Help the Poor?’, (1981), and ‘Can you Help? Charity and Justice in the Third World’ (1985). One edition from 1982 delivered a robust critique of the practice of sponsoring individual children in the Global South – sending them money along with an exchange of hand-written letters. This was quite a popular way of ‘helping’ at the time. Although child sponsorship still happens, it increasingly feels wrong; it individualizes the problem of poverty, potentially creating favouritism and false expectations among the recipient communities.

Will we look back on ‘voluntourism’ the same way? I think we already are. The practice of young people from Europe or North America spending a couple of weeks in a Global South nation to buff up their CVs and social media feeds is more than just unsavoury, it’s regressive. It perpetuates the myth that poverty is a problem to be solved by the rich world; rather than a phenomenon that is, in large part, produced by rich countries: their predatory financial institutions, rapacious corporations, and neo-colonial foreign policies.

What’s more, it often fails on its own terms. A 2006 study examined a group of US amateurs who built homes in Honduras after a devastating earthquake. Factoring in the costs of getting them there, the homes they constructed were 15 times more expensive than those built by a local Honduran organization. It simply makes more sense to spend the money that goes into voluntourism on local grassroots efforts. More to the point, if this school in Ghana actually needs an assistant role, surely it should be filled by a Ghanaian on a permanent contract – and not by unskilled teenagers on three-month postings?

But – you know all this, don’t you? The real ethical dilemma is how to engage with friends or family members, especially when they’re motivated by noble intentions and aren’t doing immediate harm. I suggest being generous to your niece. Remember, the very act of experiencing other social, economic and political conditions is edifying. We should confer on her the independence of mind to come away from the trip with a critical and nuanced view of the volunteering industry. She might realize that her impulse to help should take other more useful forms. That said, there might also be some ways to nudge her in the right direction.

Why not give her some choice reading material? This might help ensure she has a rich, fulsome portrait of why some countries are poor and others aren’t, which should in turn make her see the virtues and vices of Western charity more clearly. There are a lot of readable books that have come out recently – such as Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland – which will clarify the historical processes that gave the world its current shape. Walter Rodney’s 1972 classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is a must too, methodologically accounting for how Africa’s impoverishment was a necessary consequence of Europe’s enrichment. Oh, and at the risk of sounding self-promotional: have you considered getting her a subscription to New Internationalist magazine?

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