Finding the Questions: The Ethics of Voluntourism

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STUDENT VOICES | CHYNN PRIZE THIRD-PLACE WINNER

By Margaret Desmond

It is almost two in the morning and I am standing on the side of street in Guatemala while the driver rings the bell for what must be the sixth time. No one is answering the door. This house is supposed to be my home for the next two weeks. Internally I feel there is some universal karmic force at work which is punishing me for falling into the trap of “voluntourism.” I could have just come on vacation and explored but instead I chose to set up volunteer work. While a common choice among other college students, I really struggled with the ethical dilemmas that voluntourism presents.

Voluntourism refers to combining travel and tourism with volunteer work, usually abroad in a developing country. This practice has generated a lot of controversy. If you type “voluntourism” into a search engine, you are sure to read articles written by students who participated in international volunteer trips and realized that such trips are the height of privilege as well as useless and at times harmful, in their opinion. I have heard stories of orphanages that are set up to turn a profit by bringing in well-intentioned volunteers, at times removing children from their families. Or the stories of families who received houses built by volunteers but still had no means of earning money for food and continued to beg on the streets. Clearly the system has flaws. But through my own experiences, I cannot condemn the act of service itself. The ethical problems stem from the commodification of such service experiences and the manner in which these experiences can reinforce the existing power structure. There is a deep need for profound ethical reflection before deciding to work as a voluntourist.

Part of my research this year as a senior student has examined how students prepare for an international medical service trip in order to understand motivation for and beliefs about such trips. I am fascinated by the dialogue around voluntourism. Students are aware of the possible shortcomings or harms of such trips. This is often discussed with the group that is preparing for the trip. Many, though certainly not all, participants have a high degree of awareness about the potential to cause harm while intending to do good. Yet this awareness is not sufficient to put a stop to participation in voluntourism for most individuals.

While conducting this research, I began to appreciate how difficult it is to study this growing industry. There are short-term and long-term placements. There are opportunities to work with children in orphanages or schools, to build houses, or to do environmental conservation work. People travel with their church or their school or an agency that facilitates their experience. There is an exhausting list of factors that vary from trip to trip. Studying the effects of a home build program can give a very different view than studying the effects of a medical outreach trip. Conflation of different types of service can cast a negative pall over all work when it may be better to question certain categories of experience. In addition, a second type of conflation was revealed in my research. I was fascinated with how many students mentioned reading and discussing privilege when I asked them how they had prepared culturally for their service trip. While ostensibly it seems like a good thing that students were reading and having these conversations, I realized that there seemed to be a homogenization of poverty and the developing world. Though perhaps not the students’ intentions, it seemed as if there was no need to understand the unique history and culture of the country they were visiting if they had a good understanding and awareness of their own privilege. Yet this reflects the self-focused nature of voluntourism. The focus is the volunteer and their wishes  to which the work can be tailored. Then the volunteers return and can talk about how they received so much more than they could give. But does this receiving come from an expectation that as volunteers we are entitled to receive this much?

Naturally, one of the lessons here is the necessity of critical evaluation to ethical actions. It is easy to book a voluntourism experience with an agency, to travel to your destination, and feel you can make a small impact. It is very easy to discuss how much you learned and how you feel as if you received so much while volunteering. If I have learned anything in my twenty-two years on this Earth, it is that the seemingly simplest or easiest things are just the lid to deeper ethical issues. Ethics is rarely simple or straight-forward, and decisions that present themselves in this manner can trick us into overlooking the buried ethical question. Of course, critically evaluating every aspect of our lives would be impossible. Sometimes decisions are made quickly or streamlined to make life easier. But the underlying ethical question remains: “If it is easy, can it be right?” Be wary of the easy road and look for the question that has been almost completely hidden because it is so difficult to answer. There are other questions to ask, for example “How can I turn the focus of this service away from myself so that I can give more of myself?” But these questions necessitate a level of discomfort that comes with true ethical thinking.

However, I can attest that the volunteer experience can be far from easy. In the time I spent caring for infants at a treatment center for abused and malnourished infants, I quickly came to love each child at the center. When I left, I could not hold back the tears at leaving behind the children who had so quickly become a part of my daily routine. As most voluntourists have come to realize, I know I did nothing to change the systems of poverty that exist in Guatemala. I know that my contribution was worth very little in the grand scheme of things. But I do believe there was value in the service I chose to do. The current trend to devalue the work of the volunteer in favor of what the volunteer gains is not productive. It has changed the interpretation of solidarity to mean observation and experience rather than the deeper feeling of connectedness that it signifies.

Solidarity has quickly become a buzzword in voluntourism. The experience of “living in solidarity” is highly valued. This could mean living near poverty and learning more about how individuals experience poverty. Volunteering at a soup kitchen is an excellent example of solidarity. Often volunteers end up serving food. This is hardly a life-changing role at a soup kitchen. The people eating there could easily get their own food, but the value comes from the interaction and the intention of providing a service and respect to other people with dignity. That is the core of solidarity. It is understanding that mutual relationships are better than the giving and receiving dichotomy of most volunteer work. But the mutual aspect of this relationship is lost when the volunteers negate the effect of their work in favor of their learning experience. The most important aspect of solidarity, in my opinion, is the continuity. That is what is missing from short-term international volunteer trips. The volunteers see poverty and interact with communities. They may believe that they are living in solidarity, but all too soon time is up and volunteers return to comfortable lives in their home country. Eventually, the memories will fade as will the solidarity.

This is not an essay about how I naively went to do good by volunteering in a developing country and then realized I was mistaken and vowed never to participate in an international service trip ever again. Jumping to definitive answers does not allow for time pondering ethical questions. It is the realization of question that is crucial to developing a more ethical life. I realized my own weakness in Guatemala as I dreamed about hot showers and my own bed. But at the end of the day, I gave of myself and found a humility in Guatemala through my service. I did not change the world, but I did change the daily routine of a nurse at the center. Those who are drawn to the world of voluntourism must find the ethical questions and leave behind any solutions that appear easy. They must ask themselves “What do I have to offer?” but also ask the community “What would you like me to give?” And through this process, perhaps the world of voluntourism can become a little less controversial and generate positive relationships that may lead to true solidarity that does not fade out after the experience ends.

Margaret Desmond received her BA in Anthropology and Sociology at Fordham University. She is currently working on completing her MA in Ethics and Society from the Center for Ethics Education.


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