Thompson: Voluntourism is unsustainable form of activism

Madison Thompson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

In middle school, I remember hearing about the local church visiting a rural town in Mexico with a group of volunteers for a week to build houses. At the time, I was impressed. Not only did I not know how to find these sort of opportunities on my own, but I remember thinking how noble it was to put yourself outside your comfort zone in such a productive way.

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Unfortunately, this is not always the case with voluntourism.

Voluntourism is the act of participating in a short-term volunteer project while visiting a developing country. More often than not, it’s white people visiting a country with a non-white population to work on a tangible project that can be completed, like building a school, building an orphanage or running a medical center. They come for a few weeks, get done what they came to do and leave, as if anything has really changed.

Volunteering seems like a noble way to spend your vacation, but it usually does more harm than good. The reality is that more could’ve been done for the community members if voluntourists donated their money instead of spending it on plane tickets to do it themselves. What could’ve been a few weeks of stable employment for local people devolves into the essence of the white savior complex.

Our foreign policy reinforces this by perpetuating the image of America coming to the rescue. We’ve been convinced that other countries need our help in order to “save” these countries from their oppression.

White savior complex refers to white people who act to help non-white people in a self-serving manner. It perpetuates the idea that white people are more important and more adequately fit to fix the world’s problems — as if we’ve ever made things easier for people of color. 

We conveniently and regularly celebrate the achievements of Westerners and downplay others. It circulates the perceived innate superiority that we’ve all been conditioned to believe is the right of every American because we’re better, and we’ve achieved more.

Our foreign policy reinforces this by perpetuating the image of America coming to the rescue. We’ve been convinced that other countries need our help in order to “save” these countries from their oppression. 

Many of the issues Americans dip their toes in are matters more complex than we’re prepared for, and intervention isn’t always the answer. The TOMS shoes campaign infamously built their brand on the premise that for every pair bought, a pair would go to a child living in a developing country. 

People in these countries were not paid to make them. Free shoes, and things like voluntourism, are merely a temporary solution to much more nuanced issues.

TOMS missed the mark because the problem is not shoelessness. It’s poverty. Shoelessness is merely the symptom of a broken system. What people need are jobs so they can help themselves, not handouts.

Voluntourism can be productive for short-term change. An ophthalmologist who visits a country for one week to remove cataracts is making a huge difference in the lives of several people, even if they’re not fixing the healthcare crisis. 

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Building a school is easy. Building relationships to improve education in the long-term is not. In order to make a lasting impression, projects abroad need to be carried out long term, and whiteness should be leveraged in order to do so.

Madison Thompson can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online @madisongoeswest.