Has the volunteering industry been hijacked by privileged spectators?

instagram post volountourism volunteering abroad

Credit: Glasgow Guardian / Kirsten Colligan

Lily Clarke
Writer

This is the “Against” piece in a For and Against feature. Read the “For” piece here.

The spread of globalisation has enabled us to travel, explore and work all over the world; it’s allowed us to help others who were once unreachable and to make great global advances, which can only seem like a positive thing. However, the escalating impact of globalisation has come at the cost of “helping others” being reduced to a privileged, middle-class jolly.

Each year, students across the world enrol in volunteering schemes which claim to broaden one’s horizons, offering students the opportunity to make an impact on less economically-developed communities. This, in essence, sounds great, if done authentically. In practice, however, these volunteers often pay thousands of pounds to accomplish little more than painting walls.

The volunteering industry, which is worth approximately £134 billion, thrives off of wealthy students who are looking for something interesting and unique to put on their CV, while also searching for a new profile picture or something “edgy” to post on their Instagram.

Over the last decade, this phenomenon has become known as “voluntourism” − a term coined to describe how the volunteering industry has just become another money-making scheme targeting students who claim to want to “see how other people live”, but instead use it as a holiday.

The damage caused by this “flaky” volunteering has not only had effects on developing communities and children, but also on students’ understandings of the world. Students are never going to experience another life when they are simultaneously trying to live their own, which has the socially-constructed expectations of having no real responsibility, considerable disposable income, and years to mess around. These are luxuries that millions will never be able to afford. Students take on the position of the privileged spectator when visiting foreign territory and, rather than immersing in the culture and ways of life, they simply observe and take pictures. Volunteering no longer comes with the connotations of “roughing it” as it has been transformed into a trip of a lifetime − in which you invest not just your time, but large amounts of money. Continuing the western ways of materialism and superficiality will make it almost impossible to try and understand others. Students volunteering with no substantive skill or talent to recommend them seems almost foolish, as what they can realistically offer in terms of actual help is fairly limited.

World Challenge, one of the largest voluntourism companies, is even beginning to acknowledge the damaging effects of the pit-stop stays students have in developing countries, which they “cannot continue to facilitate” at the expense of ethical justification. They’ve even branded their own orphanage schemes as “dangerous and damaging” for both the children involved and the volunteering students’ own understandings of the world. This comes after investigation into many of their schemes, which are rapidly being reviewed.

While volunteering in essence is a positive act of giving, helping and offering, this new brand of voluntourism is losing any legitimacy it once had.