Slogans like the ones shown above, usually pegged with images of lions and zebras, are used by volunteer-travel organizations to draw the attention of thousands of well-meaning, yet often naïve, college students worldwide. Over the past decade, such advertisements have generated a powerful, internationally-influential business model that has had a tremendous impact on several communities across the African continent — the “Voluntourist Industry.”
Voluntourism can be defined as “a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work to help communities or the environment in the places they are visiting” (dictionary.com). While this definition of tourism seems intrinsically positive at face value, this term is often used in the humanitarian sector with a negative connotation to describe baseless, unsustainable acts of service by smug travelers that tend to cause more long-term harm than short-term good for the local communities they seek to impact. Although this stark denunciation of volunteer travel can be rather harsh, it is definitely something that I became increasingly aware of during my own month-long volunteer stint in Kenya and semester of study-abroad in South Africa.
I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, with absolutely no idea of what to expect or what I would be doing. Simply looking for something “productive” to do before making my way down to South Africa to study abroad, I figured that going on a month-long pit stop to volunteer in a Kenyan village would be the best use of my January days. Like many of the other international volunteers I met through my program, I had good intentions but as I am by no means a professional educator, I knew pretty much nothing about the complexities of Kenyan civil society, and I barely spoke a word of Swahili (official language of Kenya) or the Maasai “Mother Tongue” (the tribal language in the community I was supposed to work with). Regardless, here I was in Kenya and I was going to volunteer full-time as a teacher at a school in Nairobi and a school in a rural village near the Tanzania-Kenyan border. I was in for a big awakening. It was during my month in Kenya that I got a first-hand look at the “Voluntourist Industry” and some of the negative effects it has the potential to inflict on local populations.
One of the major issues I noticed first-hand in Kenya about Africa’s booming “Voluntourist Industry” is that in many cases, it seemed to be less about actually volunteering and more about tourism. Instead of participating in the tough work that they were supposed to be engaging in, I became increasingly aware of “voluntourists” who prioritized the travel-tourism options that our volunteer organization made available to us. This made the focus of their trips far less about serving the local communities and far more about the interests (or Facebook photos, rather) of the volunteer-tourists. It seemed to me that several people had traveled across the world (many of which were Europeans on their gap-years) simply to take selfies with the Kenyan kids from the schools and then embark on all-inclusive tourist vacations as soon as real work presented itself on their assignments. Once they realized how physically and mentally draining the work actually was, I noticed that some people would leave their assignments prematurely as options like the “Week in Beach-front Mombasa” or “Four-Day Luxury Safari” became increasingly sold to volunteers.
While there were plenty of volunteers who spent the majority of their time working hard on their assignments (working in orphanages, schools, hospitals, etc), there were also several volunteers who spent practically no time on their assignment and instead bounced around every touristy destination, fancy club or expensive restaurant available to them. Being a tourist is perfectly acceptable, but it just seems kind of ridiculous that these people would continue to identify themselves as volunteers. I have a particular memory of witnessing a troop of Australian girls do nothing during their first day on assignment but take photos of local children for their Instagram feeds (when they were supposed to be teaching). That same group left Nairobi the next morning for a beach vacation to Mombasa within only one day of sleeping under their first mosquito net.
Another large issue in the “Voluntourist Industry” is that it is prone to corruption and misallocation of donated funds. During my time in Kenya, accusations of corruption began sprouting within the ranks of the local Kenyan organization that we were partnered with. According to accusations made by some of the locals, several staff members from this Kenyan organization were pocketing large sums of cash that well-meaning volunteers had donated to projects for aiding the communities they were working in. Unfortunately, this is not something that was unique to the organization I was working with; several “voluntourist” organizations in developing nations across the world have been accused of taking donated money away from the impoverished communities where these donations are intended and using it for making immense personal profit.
It is not a crime for travel companies to make profit for organizing tourist trips, but these “voluntourist organizations” are not singularly travel companies; they are expected to use donations they receive in order to fund new projects to aid local communities. However, all too often donations intended to benefit humanitarian work becomes easy, personal sources of profit for voluntourist organizations. Official non-profit organizations in most western nations are required by law to be transparent in the allocation of funds that they receive; voluntourist organizations in developing countries, on the other hand, have no such restrictions on financial transparency and can easily get away with embezzlement.
One of the most sickening examples of corruption in the “Voluntourist Industry” has to do with orphanages. A volunteer who had been in Kenya for three months before I arrived explained to me that the leadership of a particular orphanage that NVS used to work with in the past was sexually-exploiting the orphan girls and using donations made by volunteers to fund its lucrative underground business (instead of renovating the bathrooms or providing meals for the children, which is what the volunteer who funded the whole conspiracy thought she was doing!). This may seem like a very extreme example, but it is actually a major issue with orphanages in Southeast Asia and India where orphans are used as tools to generate massive amounts of money from well-meaning but naïve Westerners as the orphans themselves are continually exploited for profit.
While tourism and foreign spending can bring business to several African economies, one of the major issues with the “Voluntourist Industry” is that the steady influx of volunteers it provides often creates a dependency of local communities on foreign aid. Some argue that this only serves to perpetuate the lingering effects of colonial rule on African nations and is very damaging for these economies in the long-run, which must become self-sufficient in order to ultimately succeed. For example, when volunteers bring donated shoes from the United States to African communities, they may be helping out in the short-term. However, as a result, the local shoemaker will run out of business because he cannot compete with American donations. Another example could be medical aid; if foreign medicine is continually distributed for free, there is no longer any incentive for the doctors to pursue a proper education and distribute medical supplies. Thus, in the long term, the lack of self-sufficiency in these communities is a major long-term issue that voluntourism can create.
The short-term duration of service that voluntourism usually involves is simply not enough to instill lasting support for local populations. I realized after my short stint in Kenya that I really was just another “Mzungu” (white person) that developed base-level relationships with the kids I worked with and then left in a short period of time, only to be replaced by another Mzungu. The reality is that most volunteers who are limited to trips of less than two months usually will not and cannot make any lasting impact on the communities they think they are affecting. It can be reasonably argued that hordes of volunteers coming-in and going-out of the lives of local kids may think they are “mentoring” them, but they are actually just perpetuating the kids’ mistrust for foreigners and authority figures. This is not to downplay the hard work done by the well-meaning volunteers who simply cannot afford to bum it in developing countries long enough to actually impact anything; however, it must be understand that the real impact is on us — not the local communities that some volunteers may smugly think they are impacting.
A major issue for international voluntourist organizations to combat has to do with the misallocation of funds. In ineffective settings, foreign goods and donations are often distributed according to what volunteers see as important, rather than what local communities consider important. From what I saw in Kenya, it seemed to me that many other volunteers and travelers felt an overwhelming desire to make some sort of lasting financial donation and fuel their own white-savior complex (often with some form of Instagram hashtag attached to it).
While I commend the practice of donating to charitable causes, these donations are often misplaced. For example, the $600 a particular volunteer spent in order to construct a new classroom she taught in for roughly a week would probably have been better used for something more necessary, like providing food for the school kids for the next two weeks (since the Kenyan government just cut funding for the school lunches) or hiring a new Kenyan teacher to actually teach in this classroom. There is no shortage of school buildings in most African countries— what they need is a full-time teaching staff to work in these schools.
Lastly, a major issue that several volunteers (including myself) have an issue with was something that we referred to as “poverty tourism.” The volunteer organization I was working through sold guided tours of Kiberan slums, which is the largest urban slum in Africa. This struck me as basically the lowest form of voluntourism — which does nothing but fuel the “us vs. we” distinction between the wealthy foreign voluntourists that attend the tour and the barely-surviving Kenyan slum-dwellers. These poverty tourists would basically walk around in the worst of human suffering, taking pictures the whole way through … literally documenting misery at its worst so they could upload photos to social media sites later. I heard of one incident where a man from the slum walked straight over to an overweight British voluntourist woman and without saying a single word proceeded to smash her $1000 camera on a rock (she had taken a photo of him without asking).
After working for a little less than a month at a primary school in southern Kenya, I was both mentally and physically exhausted. I was constantly dirty, sweaty, teaching classes and playing sports every day after school in the heat with the students. I got in the habit of shitting in a hole in the ground. I was having an absolute blast, but it was not easy work (nor should it have been). I was getting no guidance from the organization that had put me in Kenya, which seemed a whole lot more focused on selling tourist trips to me than actually helping me with developing lesson plans for the kids I was working with and building an after-school sports program for them. Regardless, I had an amazing experience and it really exposed me to at least a glimmer of the life that many Kenyans live. I had a wonderful host-mom and I was still able to learn a tremendous amount about Kenyan culture and their specific socio-political issues.
I won’t pretend that I made some big amazing impact on anyone in Kenya, but the experience really opened my eyes to both the successes in international aid and the failures of the growing voluntourism industry. I do not claim to be any kind of wise humanitarian and I most certainly do not wish to discredit the multitudes of well-meaning and intelligent individuals who sacrifice both their time and money to bring hope to those who otherwise might have none. During my seven months in Africa, I had the privilege of meeting some of the most selfless social workers and volunteers I will ever meet. Instead, this article is aimed at the self-righteous folks that would rather take photos with random African kids they have never met and leave immediately for exotic travel locations without doing any of the real work. It is also aimed at the voluntourist organizations that make significant personal profit off of the suffering of others. This is a problem that the growing “voluntourism industry” must address for positive, lasting change to occur.
Nik Frey hopes that people will start taking the “volunteer” part of “voluntourism” more seriously.