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The Harm in Voluntoursim

Voluntourism is a term used for a travel experience to both volunteer and enjoy the tourist attractions of another country. People pay companies or organizations to plan out volunteer experiences. It can justify going on an expensive trip abroad since there's seemingly a "helping the less fortunate" component to it. It's a huge business around the world which usually causes more harm than good for communities. In this post I am sharing my own experience and opinions of voluntourism.

During my senior year in college, I heard about a study abroad volunteer program and went to a talk held by a student who had started this program in Thailand. Our university sent a group of college students to northern Thailand over winter break to teach art projects to a group of kids at a small school. This school was home to kids of all ages who were at risk of sex trafficking along the border of Myanmar.This was a place for local kids to live and study as many of their parents were working elsewhere and couldn't afford school. Many of these kids were stateless, meaning they had no documents to prove where they were born.

I was completely ecstatic after this talk. The student, I'll call him Bill, who started this project was everything I wanted to be: a world traveler, a visionary, a creator, a helper. I immediately signed up and was off to Thailand over Christmas break for 3 weeks.

The trip was wonderful and the school was incredible. We did fun art projects with the kids and spent every day playing with them. I fell in love with Thailand. The culture was so warm, welcoming and kind. The night markets, the lush landscape, the incredible food....everything about this country mesmerized me.

Once I got back home, I immediately started looking for jobs to teach English in Thailand . By April, I found a job in a city in the south called Trang. One week after I graduated, I was in Trang starting my new job and ended up staying for the whole year then went to another school in Phuket to teach for another six months.

Over a long holiday break from work, I went back to the school where we had volunteered (not even a year earlier) to visit a friend who was volunteering long term at the school. This time around was a much different experience.

At this point, the school had ended ties with the group Bill had started and were no longer accepting volunteers for less than 4 months. The kids were negatively affected by people coming and going so frequently. People come from another country, bond with the kids, donate some money, then go back to our privileged lives. Just as my group did. Just as I did.

A few months after this visit, I was at an Internet cafe and came across a post of Bill's on Facebook. It was a photo documentary about sex workers in Bangkok. I was intrigued since this was exactly the important work the school we volunteered at was working on saving kids from.

As I scrolled through, he posted all of these great pictures of women he had interviewed. But after I started reading the captions, my heart sank to the floor. What he had written was completely condemnatory, dehumanizing and degrading. I was absolutely horrified with the white savior complex tone to it all.

I reached out to Bill asking how he could exploit these women. How could he judge someone so harshly who probably hadn't been given many opportunities in life to succeed, someone who was probably sending money back to their village to feed their family. How could this person who seemed to be such a compassionate leader do something so hurtful to a group of humans he clearly knows little about. He basically laughed at my response and told me I shouldn't buy into sex work being part of the Thai culture.

Everything about my second trip back to the school now made sense. I assume Bill burned bridges because of this white savior mentality that somehow coming from a western nation to developing one puts you in a position of power to save the poor kids and sex workers.

The idea that being white, privileged or American somehow makes us superior. That we easily sign up to volunteer in a different country without a specific skillset. That just our presence will magically change the lives of who we meet. That they need our help to live a better life. This is racism wrapped up in a "feel good package."

It's very important for people to see how others live around the world, even in our own country and communities. To see how extremely segregated many communities are, to understand how socioeconomic status affects access to heath care (mental and physical), education and employment. That many people with privilege often don't realize the imbalanced effects of it.

There are other ways to travel and help communities without signing up for an expensive trip. With some careful planning and lots of research, you can go anywhere. Supporting the local economy (hotels, restaurants, transportation, clothing etc) is in itself a great way to help others. If there is an organization you find during a trip, just contact them directly and ask what they need. More often than not a monetary donation is the best way to help.

I volunteered a lot growing up and felt I was never doing anything to help and was more of an intruder. This I believe is exactly the point. That we're not here to change and save people. This is what we social workers learn in school and what my parents taught me. If I'm able to give something that someone needs (money, time, food), I will certainly do so without expecting to control what they do with it or expecting something in return.

It's important to continue to question our beliefs, biases, perspectives and reasons for wanting to help others. Dig deep and challenge yourself and experiences. There is a lot more underneath the superficial layer of good intentions which can be deeply destructive to communities and ourselves.

What are your experiences with volunteering abroad? I'd love to hear your opinions.

Thanks for reading-


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