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As summer is quickly coming upon us, I feel obligated to bring an important issue to your attention. It’s an obvious fact that more people travel during the summer months – whether that’s for family vacations, school-sanctioned Study Abroad, or otherwise. Many people take it upon themselves to go on Service Trips to impoverished areas, wanting to make a difference in the world. Giving up your time and resources to people in need is a beautiful thing. However, often times it can be problematic if you are not properly educated about who and where you’re going to be helping. Herein lies the Voluntourism Dilemma.
“Voluntourism” is what it sounds like: a form of tourism in which tourists volunteer for charity work. Basically, this occurs when a person wants to travel to a foreign place and make a difference in the world. That sounds like a win-win situation, right? As altruistic as it sounds, being a voluntourist has negative implications.
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This concept is found in most “charity work” scenarios. For example: A group of college students fly to Haiti to build houses to help solve the poverty crisis. They have a memorable experience, feel humbled, take photos, and feel proud of the homes they’ve built. But when they leave, they’ve failed to consider the needs of the Haitian recipients. Sure, they have a roof over their heads now – but they still lack a formal education, professional skills and available employment. They still live in poverty, and still beg on the street, but at least they have a house.
Those Haitians actually need a school with qualified teachers, where they can learn life skills and be prepared to enter the workforce. They also need organizations to fund Haitian entrepreneurs – to give them a platform to build a business. In turn, this Haitian-run business would be able to hire other unemployed Haitians. If the group of college students had tailored their project to these needs, they would have made a far greater impact on the local economy and the lives of many Haitians. Even if they had simply donated the money they’d spent on the plane tickets, a local organization could’ve hired qualified Haitians to build the homes instead.
Do you see what I mean? Truly helping people requires more than just basic skills and a photo op. You can learn more about voluntourism here and here.
Promote Dignity. Understand that the people you are helping are just that – people. Avoid talking about them as if they are victims of their circumstances. When you speak about or to them, understand that they are just as capable as you, and should never be talked down on. Get to know them for who they are. Realize that, most often, these countries and their people are less “foreign” and “exotic” than mainstream media makes them seem. Most importantly, “Always keep in mind that people are not tourist attractions.”
Gain Informed Consent. Many people won’t feel comfortable being photographed for a number of reasons. They, just like you, have a reasonable right to privacy. Never photograph people in vulnerable or degrading positions out of respect. Remember to ask the person you are interacting with if it is okay to snap a photo of or with them. If you can, offer them a copy of the picture so they can have the memory, too. Remember that parents ultimately have the final say when it comes to posting photos of children.
Use your privilege. If you are traveling to another country to volunteer, realize that you 1) have the time and funds to travel, 2) have the ability and resources to help, and 3) are in a stable enough position that you don’t need help yourself. If you post about your experiences on social media, aim to highlight the humanity of the people you are interacting with. If you have their permission, discuss the person’s personality and aspirations.
Ask yourself honestly, “Am I choosing volunteer programs based on the destination’s sightseeing opportunities? Am I only here to have fun, or to put this experience on a resume? Am I doing this for me?” If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may want to re-evaluate your intentions.
Dina Rabie is the Social Media Manager for the Binghamton University Chapter. She is a junior studying English and Comparative Literature. She is also a copy editor for BU's newsletter, PRISM.