Straddling the international development and higher education sectors, I have become acutely aware of the rapid rise of student voluntourism marketed to university students under the guise of “making a difference while travelling the world”.
These types of voluntourism programs are often ethically questionable, and play on the emotions of young people, many of whom genuinely have the desire to do something meaningful and to learn more about the world while traveling as a transformational experience. Regardless of intentions however, the results are often the same, with evidence showing that there are profound negative effects manifesting from using vulnerable communities in developing countries as a “classroom” for privileged Western students, who have little to offer in the way of skills or expertise and are inadvertently fuelling the profitable business of voluntourism and cultural exploitation. Children are especially vulnerable in this context, and are used as marketing pawns to encourage unqualified, but well-intentioned students, to come and play with them and teach them English, reinforcing ideas around white privilege, neo-colonialism, poverty porn through detached cultural voyeurism, and the oversimplification of complex issues that require long-term, contextual approaches by the community and by local/international experts.
In saying all this, I do believe that there is a place for structured, community-driven, responsible volunteering programs. Ethical volunteer programs can help raise awareness of profound inequalities affecting the world, develop more globally engaged citizens who are more self-aware, committed to social justice and positive social change, while challenging perceptions and stereotypes by improving cultural intelligence. This can help shape the social fabric of society by dismantling Western paternalistic attitudes towards the developing world and encourage and empower peer-to-peer learning across borders, languages and cultures.
Universities are ground zero for the recruitment for these programs, and the challenge now facing universities is to take a stronger stance by demanding that these programs adhere to best practice development standards, remove any programs that work with orphans, family-care settings and vulnerable children, ensuring that reciprocity and community governance is at the forefront, and educate students on the impacts of voluntourism so they can make informed choices about their impact and value-add. Universities can and must do better in supporting students to be ethical and responsible travellers and offer alternative pathways for those wanting to “make a difference”.