I had a post ready at the end of June, but then I changed my mind as to the direction I wanted to go; if you were waiting all this time, my apologies! Hopefully this will have been worth the wait, though!
Originally I only wanted to discuss the who of voluntourism in this post. This could have been a good direction, however it is still a bit vast and it would not be easy to cover that in one post. Why? It includes the voluntourist, the workers, the communities, and finally the company/organization. That is a lot of people and with topics associated to each group! So, in today’s post, I give an overview about voluntourists, using the 5 W’s, starting with …
… WHO becomes a voluntourist?
This may seem simple and for the most part it is. When you picture a voluntourist, who do you picture? Chances are you will mostly picture white girls in their late teens/early twenties. This makes sense, as these are the most common faces seen in voluntourism images. While we may not be conscious of it, though, these images perpetuate the colonial hierarchies between people of colour and white people. Sure, one could argue that the fact that some voluntourists are people of colour defies this stereotype, but these hierarchies consider those to be outliers, exceptions to the rule. Further, these images perpetuate the geopolitical hierarchies that were originally defined by racial difference and which still are very much influenced by these physical differences. You see young adults from affluent communities wearing their clean, pretty clothes, surrounded by what are usually children, dirty and in tattered clothing. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those words are often a lie, reinforcing ideas and images of extreme poverty, rather than acknowledging that the children are likely wearing their play clothes because they have been outside playing; what young child do you know who stays clean if left to play in the dirt?
WHAT do they do?
This could be a vast question, as so many options are available. Ask yourself what your career is: chances are you can find an opportunity to impart the knowledge you have gained. Have not yet started your career? Ask yourself what skills you have and you will likely find an opportunity that matches your skills. Do not have any skills? Want to test out a new career path before diving into the years of study required to obtain certification? Look around and you will find a whole host of opportunities requiring no skills/qualifications.
Yes, you read that right! One of many examples I have witnessed that comes to mind:
A month after moving to Ghana, I was struck with malaria. No big deal, I was already used to this and we had a clinic in our village, as well as hospitals in the two nearest cities, so we made our way to the closest hospital. I was admitted overnight on a Saturday and was told to come back during the week to get a lab ensuring the parasite had left my body. Okay, fine. We show up and who is drawing blood from my arm, as well as from those of countless Ghanaians of all ages and abilities? A sixteen year-old white girl fresh out of high school; she was voluntouring for 4 months total with Germany’s Agricultural and Rural Development Association. She had spent less than a month in Ghana volunteering at this particular hospital and was doing this placement (clearly having nothing to do with agriculture, unless you count patients with farming injuries) because she was deciding whether she wanted to be a paramedic. She had absolutely no experience in medicine, yet here she was drawing blood from so many peoples arms. I wanted to object to her drawing my blood, but did not want to appear as though I was some kind of snobbish obruni. I do regret that, though. Not only would my objection have been for my own safety, but I would like to think it would have raised red flags for Ghanaians, whether they were getting their blood drawn or were working alongside her.
I should add that she pricked herself with the needle she had just used to draw blood from the person before me. She also gave me a bruise that took some time to heal. Sure, even people who were certified have given me bruises, but the fact is: she was not and if she couldn’t even protect herself from used needles, what about patients?!
When I complained about this in a Facebook post, an old friend of mine responded that she voluntoured in South America (I forget which country) after getting her nursing degree. Only those with certification were allowed to stick needles in peoples bodies. In Canada, I have been told that those in training cannot draw blood as long as they do not have the right certification or permissions or something. As far as I could see in a Google search, you have to be a nursing extern before you can actually use a needle on another person.
Why is this okay in Ghana, but not in Canada or the South American country my friend voluntoured in? Or maybe it is not even the country, so much as her being with a responsible organization?
There are seasons for voluntouring, May-September being the busiest months. During this time, you will mostly see students from the Northern Hemisphere. Throughout the rest of the year you can find those taking gap years, career breaks, those who are retired, those who are on vacation, etc. Voluntourists tend to go in their late teens/early twenties, before starting their families, during career breaks, on vacation or even as empty nesters.
I.e. they go when it is most convenient/socially acceptable/useful.
For the most part, the voluntourists I have met have come from the UK, the US, Canada, the rest of Western Europe, Australia and Japan. Having voluntoured in Ghana and Ireland, my two destinations show that voluntourism destinations are limitless. I went to Ireland semi-independently as a WWOOF’er, while my experience voluntouring in Ghana with Projects Abroad (PA) was far more controlled. Do not think control = structure, though. I had way more structure in Ireland than in Ghana. My Irish hosts and I came to agreements for everything, while in Ghana, PA took care of everything and what they did not take care of, they hired others to take care of – this sure explains the price difference! Increasingly, voluntourists are going to “developing” countries. This might be explained by the simple Google search to “volunteer abroad” – the whole first page of results is for the larger companies/organizations sending volunteers to the “developing world”.
WHY do they volunteer?
There are a variety of reasons people do voluntourism trips:
“Whether your aim is to help some of the most impoverished people in the world, experience a culture to its fullest, improve your admissions chances to a highly-selective school, or improve your job skills, volunteering abroad can offer many benefits to those who seek to do good in another country. More often, the desire to volunteer abroad can encompass many motivations such as giving back while seeing a part of the world you’ve always been interested in visiting.”
First: Notice the language used, language that reinforces the hierarchy between local and voluntourist
Second: If you read the article (even if only the subtitles), you will see that doing it for others is the last reason, almost as if thrown in as an afterthought. With so much emphasis on social media to be altruistic, voluntourists are able to give the impression of helping the exotic other in a way that looks great on their resume. Good intentions are there, but actions do not always represent these intentions. For example, see this screenshot I recently took:
Now do not think that I am saying it is bad to drink beer when you volunteer abroad, or to relax on your time off, but if your goal is to party, then why are you going in the first place? Maybe you need to rethink your priorities and even choose another type of travel in which partying better fits in. That said, this person could be going for any number of reasons, so understand that I raise this example because a number of voluntourists do have these kinds of goals in mind and that is a problem.I am not yet decided which direction I would like to take in my next post. I know what I want to discuss in the series, but in which order, not so much.
SO let me know whether you would rather I finish going through the who’s of voluntourism and then go into the issues or if you would want me to look at the issues pertaining to voluntourists before I move on to the other who’s.
Quoted from their Ghana volunteers page: “No particular skills are required to volunteer short-term or long term with us”