The voluntourism rabbit hole

There seems to have been a flood of posts on voluntourism and the ‘white saviour’ complex recently, much of it following a thought provoking piece on the problem with little white girls (and boys) posted by Philippa Biddle. As this is an ongoing interest of mine (two papers I wrote on voluntourism will be published in the next few months… I should probably blog summaries of these at some point) I started following the rabbit trail and collecting some of the posts. What follows is a lightly annotated list of posts which is mostly for my own reference, but I hope others may find useful.

Firstly, the original and excellent post on little white girl voluntourists which was reposted on Huff Post. My favourite part is a sentiment I share:

“I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.”


 Amongst the re-blogs, and Twitter and Facebook shares were some equally thought-provoking responses:

Lee Crawford at Roving Bandit agreed with Philippa that village level development projects by voluntourists are likely mostly irrelevant, but argued that it is worthwhile for the connections made.

TMS Ruge wrote On Voluntourism. Yes, again, disaggreing with Roving bandit, and noting the impacts voluntourism has had in his community (including nothing, othering and disempowerment).

While not directly responding to Philippa, Mario Machado wrote about Voluntourism and Its Limitations on Huff Post, noting that:

“unless we [voluntourists] are willing to accept the inter-relatedness of our privilege with someone else’s poverty and allow that understanding to change how we live our lives, we are just exercising our privilege even more.”

There are of course, other posts both agreeing with Philippa (for example here and here) and defending voluntourism (here and here), and a reddit conversation. However as TMS Ruge’s title On Voluntourism. Yes, again indicates, this is not the beginning of this conversation. Indeed Philippa has jumped into a larger conversation that shows no signs of ending any time soon (not, at least, while voluntourists continue to travel). A few recent, and not-so-recent-but-notable posts:

Just a couple of weeks ago Weh Yoh wrote Hey Voluntourist, Take A Back Seat! on NewMatilda, a post which overlaps with my interest in health and medical volunteerism (and inappropriate donations).

Around the same time Jordyn Fisher posted Good Intentions Gone Bad, about her experiences in Ghana.

Daniela Papi has written and spoken extensively on voluntourism, including Why You Should Say No to Orphanage Tourism and  Voluntourism: What Could Go Wrong When Trying To Do Right?.

Last year Selin Kara wrote The problem with today’s voluntourism and the charity culture: the rise of NGO-colonialism, which she finishes with this challenge:

“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.”

WhyDev has published many posts on voluntourism, many are posts from researchers, including Hanna Tabea Voelkl who outlined her research on Orphanage Tourism in Ghana, Brendan Rigby who posted a number of links on what voluntourists need to know before they go and a post from Dr. Nichole Georgeou on How volunteeering in development became “Duchessed (particularly relevant to the Australian context).

The Matador Network has a whole section on voluntourism with some critical posts, but most are encouraging voluntourism.

Finally a link to and quote from another older, but very relevant post: Teju Cole on The White-Savior Industrial Complex:

“How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I’ve seen many) about how “we have to save them because they can’t save themselves” can’t change that fact.”

…and some humour – Ugandan/ Canadian Arthur Simeon on ‘Helping Africans‘.

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