The Hidden Face of Volunteerism

By Elisa Vallette.

A screenshot from the parody video ‘WHO WANTS TO BE A VOLUNTEER?’, produced by the Norweigen Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH).

Have you ever been bothered about a photo of a proud white volunteer among brown impoverished children? Why would these well-intentioned volunteers irritate you? Referred to as “development tourists” or “voluntourists” willing to help out and experience the developing world during a short period of time, they might actually worsen the situation of those they are trying to help. While students criticize power inequalities and poverty produced by a capitalist world system, in development tourism, they unconsciously become victims and actors of this system. Instead of reducing inequalities, they might reinforce them. 

In his article ‘The ‘Real Experience’ industry: Student development projects and the depoliticisation of poverty’ J. Hickel reports “students admit they will only be satisfied going to Africa, Asia, or Latin America. In other words, it seems that brown and black people are pivotal to students’ fantasies of the real experience.” It means that they are unlikely to go to Eastern Europe, or help the needy in their own society, but are only interested in getting that picture with coloured people. E. Said’s Orientalism theory, that describes the simple essentialising depiction of ‘Others’ by the ‘superior Western people’, seems to apply here. The photos creating fantasies about societies inhabited by poor brown children are used as advertisement. Agencies make profits from poverty by selling students this exotic life-changing experience.

“students admit they will only be satisfied going to Africa, Asia, or Latin America. In other words, it seems that brown and black people are pivotal to students’ fantasies of the real experience.”

J. Hickel (2013)

In addition to being unethical, this business conveys negative stereotypes. Besides a neo-colonial connotation, it reinforces the binary between a romanticised simple lifestyle and a modern materially-corrupted one. This false representation suggests that development tourists looking for the ‘real experience’ actually did not face the stressful pressure the poor face every day. Statements such as “poor people are happy the way they live” legitimise material inequalities by implying that some traditional communities should not enjoy consumerism to preserve “spiritual happiness of the simple pleasure in life.” But what if the supposed beneficiaries want the technologically sophisticated smartphone used to take the picture… Idealised stories by development tourists temporarily counter the hegemonic development theory of modernisation and its imperatives of material progress.

As a young student lacking experience, I fell into the trap of an unpaid internship in rural Peru. I was surprised that the manager decided to build a chicken coop, without any concertation with the community, nor prior research. During the construction many photos were taken to showcase a ‘doing-good’ activity by interns on the organisation’s website. In reality, this project was a total failure. People in the community were busy with their harvest already and did not take care of the chicken imposed by outsiders, which they saw as an extra work burden. Nutrition did not improve as they were already eating meat and the chicken did not survive at this altitude anyway due to the lack of oxygen. Waste of time, money, and energy. 

This post aims at raising awareness rather than frightening young motivated people. Volunteerism does offer some benefits. Firstly, charities using volunteers who pay rather than hiring locals save financial resources. However, the problem lies with so-called ‘non-profit’ organisations that don’t invest back the money they collect from interns and operate like profit-driven businesses. Hence, the importance of transparency. Secondly, participants shocked by socio-economic disparities, might raise awareness back home, solicit donations, and engage in a global civil society network in the longer term. Although their work on the ground might not make a substantial change, sharing their experience can draw attention to global issues. From passive consumers, they have the potential to become activists. The commercialisation of poverty should not distract attention away from its root causes. 

Source: Humansophere.org

From students’ perspectives, it is understandable, especially when not being paid, not to be able to spend more than a few months abroad. But students should be aware of the consequences of their actions and carefully choose from the many field trips options. For instance, short-term volunteerism in orphanages might be particularly problematic for children likely to re-experience a sense of abandonment when the volunteers leave. Acting in the best interests of children over visitors’ emotional needs, the Christian Alliance for Orphans decided that volunteers would support local caregivers rather than directly working with children. The challenge posed by orphanage tourism, one of the most popular destinations for volunteers, is to manage expectations of volunteers often looking for the emotional reward of having 10 kids jumping into their arms. The extent of good or unintended harm done by volunteers not only depends on the nature of the host organisation but also on the personal motivations and attitudes of interns. 

‘Thus, students should make informed decisions by understanding how the host organisation functions, how the volunteering program will contribute to achieving their bigger mission, make sure projects are aligned with the needs and preferences of the locals, and impact is evaluated.’

The development sector comprises many well-intended organisations as well as corrupt and poorly run ones. Thus, students should make informed decisions by understanding how the host organisation functions, how the volunteering program will contribute to achieving their bigger mission, make sure projects are aligned with the needs and preferences of the locals, and impact is evaluated. A hard task given beautiful websites full of photos selling lies. One avenue of investigation is connecting with previous interns

The debate on development tourism is a necessary and healthy one. Critics are necessary to address the flaws. Acknowledging this, some organisations have changed the format and content of their volunteering programs, emphasizing on learning and discovering a new culture rather than providing assistance. This shift to transformational tourism contributes to intercultural exchanges, cosmopolitanism, and breaks some stereotypes. ‘Development educational tours’ is another good alternative. Volunteers should adopt an humble attitude by seeking to learn from others rather than coming as white saviors teaching people.This debate helps improve the development industry, be aware of its flaws, and maintain its overall moral integrity. Although commendable, the intention of helping abroad does not provide a sustainable solution to the world’s complex issues. Quite the contrary, it might fuel global inequalities.


Elisa Vallette is from France. Before entering the Master’s in Governance, Development and Public Policy at IDS, she studied international development at McGill University and gained experience in environmental and community development NGOs. She is interested in circular green models, politics of knowledge, and inclusive governance systems.


One thought on “The Hidden Face of Volunteerism

  1. Very interesting article that I’m sure will resonate with many. An observation I made in my previous job with a volunteer organization was of the growing popularity of what I am terming ‘south-south voluntourism’. That is to say that the selfie-seekers were not limited to (white) foreigners, but-to a lesser extent-included the urban middle classes within the same country. Working with national volunteers presented different challenges to those of working with international volunteers. For example, national volunteers sometimes came with certain opinions or stereotypes for example, of class hierarchies or political opinions such as those concerning social welfare policies of their country. International volunteers often sat outside of this, whether through lack of awareness or context, different language or a neutral view of the situation, for example. Whilst I no longer support the volunteer/voluntourism model, I think it is always interesting to consider some of these nuances, such as the fact that it is not limited to foreigners, and also (as you have addressed) ways it could improve or change if demand for volunteering experiences continues to sustain it.

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