I was a Voluntourist

In an article that started trending recently, “The Problem with Little White Girls“, blogger Pippa Biddle shares about her experience doing short term aid in Tanzania. While her group of private school kids had flown in to build a library for an orphanage, they were actually terrible at construction:

“Each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure… It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level…”

Biddle goes on to ask her reader to reconsider short-term aid.

“Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip. Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the ‘white savior’ complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.”

Biddle’s article was convicting for me because, as you have probably already heard, I was a voluntourist.

With the giraffes

Visiting the giraffes


Reading her article wasn’t the first time I’d felt convicted about my intentions working as a short-termer. While living in Niger my uncle gave me a copy of When Helping Hurts to read. This book, which targets Christian missionaries in particular, argues that defining poverty in relation to wealth automatically frames wealthier communities as superior. It argue that instead, our focus needs to be on learning from each others’ areas of “wealth”, and when we do offer help, to offer it in cooperation rather than through paternalism.

I don’t often write about the time I spend in Niger, even though it was an amazing experience for me. My aunt and uncle were incredibly gracious and offered to host me, vouch for me, and keep an eye out for me, just so that I could finally live out my childhood dream. I also met incredible people, many of whom I still Facebook stalk so I can learn from their wisdom.

The reason why I don’t really bring it up is because I feel so humbled.  I know so, so little about Niger, and even less about the continent of Africa. My experience also forced me to recognize just how selfish my dream of being “helpful” really was.

Ah Patrick Swayze, with the world (in this case India) as the backdrop for his character’s personal drama.

When I was quite young I watched a movie called City of Joy and decided that someday I would go overseas and “help people”. The thing was, when I finally got the chance to go overseas I didn’t really end up being helpful in the way I had imagined. My uncle had arranged a job for me volunteering at an international school. Many of my students were the children of expatriates and being on the campus didn’t always feel all that different than volunteering in a school here in Canada (other than the heat). During my first few months I would sneak pictures of the city streets when we went out to buy groceries from the market. I wanted to be able to share pictures of my experience that seemed “authentic”.

While that fascination for new cultural experiences remained, the year I spent in Niger completely changed my understanding of international work. Friends and acquaintances who had worked overseas for years explained how much of their job was just paperwork, and how the best thing they could do would be to “work their way out of a job”. The goal wasn’t to walk in and be the “white savior” but to share the resources they had been gifted with.

I also started to love my job. Even though it wasn’t flashy, I knew I was doing something that I actually had (at least a little) experience with. The kids, though they challenged me, were hilarious and fun individuals. The experience also compelled me to go back to school so that the next time I traveled I would have other skills to offer. 

tuareg tea

Tea, Tuareg style


As for “authentic” experiences, my amazing roommate was gracious enough to invite me along to visit her Tuareg friends. She had spent the previous year building friendships in the Tuareg community while learning Tamashek. Because I barely spoke any French at the time and definitely not any Tamashek, she had to translate many of their conversations for me, which I’m sure was often an annoyance. Despite the language gap, her friends accepted me with kindness and laughter. They were proud to educate me about their cultural identity and they tried their best to teach me some Tamashek greetings. After a little while, visiting with them was no longer about experiencing a different culture, but about spending time with friends. 

Even at the school where I worked, all of us (staff and students from around the globe) loved to share about our unique cultural traditions. Generally speaking, we wanted to teach each other, and to learn from our cultural differences. 

It’s the most cliche thing to say “that experience taught me so much”… but, seriously, that experience really did teach me so much. It made me realize how doing “charity” often allows us to overlook that way our governments, and even our personal choices, can perpetuate the poverty we are targeting with our charity. It made me realize that my privilege doesn’t actually qualify me to solve global issues, but that it can give me access to some resources that I have the ability to share. It also taught me that I don’t have any right to demand a “cultural” or “authentic” experience, but that most of the time, people are gracious and would love to share their traditions and unique differences with you anyways.

So yes, I was a voluntourist. Quite honestly, I hope to work overseas again sometime soon. I certainly do agree with Biddle when she asks us to consider the skills we have to offer before jumping on a plane, and I realize now that volunteering doesn’t mean you are going to be “solving” any big issues (that’s just the ego talking). In fact, I realize now how any volunteer work has to be done with caution, because even with good intentions it’s easy to forget the important principle of “first do no harm”.

Does that mean putting an end to intercultural exchanges? I sure hope not.


5 responses to “I was a Voluntourist

  1. This is super Kat. I know you touched on this kind of stuff before. But hearing your heart in this was awesome. I too have struggled with my intentions when doing ministry or any volunteer work. So easily it can become about “me” in our culture. “Beware the me monster!”
    But seriously, really enjoyed this.

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  3. I’ve been looking for proper rebuttals to the aforementioned article, and yours is a lovely read. However, I think you missed he point she was trying to make. Your post is all about how your trips changed *you*, not the place you went. The problem with voluntourism is that ego often seems to run the program; regardless of how much an individual wants to help. I look forward to your response – I hope you can explain how voluntourism created a lasting change and helped people other than you and the other voluntourists.

    • Actually Laura, it’s not really a rebuttal. I agree with her on basically all her points. As a voluntourist, my intentions were originally pretty selfish, but I was lucky to have been welcomed by locals and expats alike, and to even have been (somewhat) helpful while I was here. That said, I wrote this article partially to discourage idealistic people like me from jumping on a plane to solve the world’s problems, without considering “do no harm” philosophy first.

      My conclusion, is not directed towards voluntourism, but rather longer term aid work and less charity-focused cultural exchanges. There were people I met in Niger who spent most of their lives building relationships with the locals and, consequently, could help communities gain access to the resources and opportunities that they actually wanted.
      I would also like to see cultural exchanges continue to happen, but hopefully in a different way than we see with voluntourism. Honestly, I don’t have a perfect blueprint for what a cultural exchange should look like, only that it should be based on equality (rather than the giver/receiver relationship we see with charity work). I think it is important for people from different cultures to get the opportunity to build relationships with one another, since it helps us all (on both sides) break down our fear of the “other”.

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