The challenge of voluntourism

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It’s so dirty and smelly here! They just need proper flushing toilets!”

I was sitting at our home in a north Indian slum, hosting a foreign volunteer. It was exasperating that this young man thought he knew how to fix the many problems in the slum after having been here for a few hours! If he’d listened and learnt for a few weeks before offering “solutions”, he would have realised that the main problem for our neighbours in the slum was actually the lack of stable employment, much more than the lack of flushing toilets.

Along with my wife Cathy, and our two sons, I’ve lived in India for 17 years—most of it in various slums. We’ve often failed, but sometimes succeeded, in helping life become a little better for our neighbours, who are struggling at the margins of society.

My long-term work in India actually came about because of a short-term trip during my university break back in the late ‘80s. One particular incident during that trip was life-changing. With my limited Hindi, I was speaking to a man outside his house—a plastic and wood shack. He explained that his wife had just given birth to their child, only a few days earlier, right there in their home, with no medical help whatsoever. I was struck by this man’s life being so difficult, simply by virtue of being born in India, while I had access to world-class education and health care, simply by being born in Australia. I realised the world was not a fair place. I wanted to do something about it.

Nowadays, many young (and not so young) people travel from Australia, New Zealand and other wealthy nations to the developing world. They come to see the sights and to experience new things. They sometimes also come to see what poverty looks like “in the flesh”; to meet people like us who are working with the poor, and to help. Some of these trips result in life-changing experiences, as it did for me, but many of them sadly lead to no more than a few Facebook posts.

During our years in India, we’ve seen dozens of visitors come and go. Their motives are often noble: to learn, to help, to be an encouragement. Sadly however, many well-meaning visits are actually burdensome to people like us—taking up a lot of time that could have been used in helping our struggling neighbours. Even worse, sometimes those trips cause more damage than good, by creating unhealthy dependencies. To help your next trip not be burdensome, but instead be a positive experience for you and your hosts, here are six tips we’d offer from our own experience.

1. Go as a learner

Recognise that no matter how many books you’ve read or documentaries you’ve seen on your destination, you are not an expert on that place. People who actually live and work there know it far better than you. So go with an attitude of wanting to learn from locals, rather than telling them what they should be doing. Imagine an Indian coming to your town or suburb for the first time and telling you how you should be living, working, eating and defecating. Sadly, we’ve had many visitors who, after a day or two, like our flushing-toilet friend, think they know what will help people. They talk too much and offer their views too readily. A wise development worker once summarised our job as foreigners in the developing world as: “Go in, sit down, shut up and be a nice person.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that!

2. Prioritise people, rather than tourist places

You’ll only get a very limited understanding of a new place by visiting its tourist attractions. While the Taj Mahal might look good on your Facebook post, it won’t give you much understanding of India. Instead, before you travel, find other Westerners who have lived in the country for a long time. Write to ask if you can visit for a few weeks or months. Even better, ask if they can take you to meet local families. Visits with local people, especially if done in humility, are likely to be the most powerful experiences of your trip.

3. Leave the big lens at home

We’ve had a number of visitors who can’t stop taking photos. As we walk around our slum neighbourhood, all that clicking sometimes feels disrespectful to my neighbours (treating them as a novelty or an oddity), and is embarrassing to me, as it makes our visitor party stand out even more! So when you get to the Taj Mahal, take as many photos as you like! But when you’re in someone’s community, or in their house, only take one or two photos and, of course, always with permission of the people. Another good rule of thumb when taking a photo is to ask yourself, “Who will this photo benefit?” If it only benefits you by winning “adventure points” with your Facebook friends, then it’s probably better to leave the camera in your bag.

4. Don’t act like Santa Claus

Giving out a few things while touring in a poor country might help you feel better about the trip, but it will create an unhelpful image of Westerners as “Santa Clauses” who give out tokenistic gifts, but do little long-term good. For trips of several months, some medically or educationally trained “volunt-tourists” run medical clinics or informal schools—teaching kids any­thing from art to English. Generally these ventures are harmless. However, if a “clinic” or “school” continues for too long, it runs the danger of creating dependency. If your little service gives free medicines or lessons for several months, people can get used to that. However, once you and your medicines and lessons have gone, people have lost the habit of going to the government hospital or school. Admittedly those hospitals or schools are more crowded and not as well resourced, but it is a service that exists now, and will stay for decades. Consequently, your “service” may even leave the local residents disconnected from these local resources—worse off than if you hadn’t gone there at all. A good alternative is to find an NGO doing good work and give a financial gift. Preferably do this anonymously, so you won’t be seen as the “white saviour” and it won’t over-inflate your ego.

5. Minimise your carbon footprint

Climate change is doing huge damage to the poor. In low-lying coastal areas, vulnerable people are already losing their homes due to rising sea levels. They are also more vulnerable to natural disasters like hurricanes and floods, which are increasing in frequency and intensity due to climate change. So it’s very important in any touring of the developing world, to minimise your carbon footprint. By far the most carbon emissions from your trip will be from your flights. A regular return international flight will equate to about 2 tonnes CO2e. A sustainable level of emissions for everyone on the planet is about 2 tonnes per year, so your flight uses up most of your fair share of the world’s carbon budget for the whole year! This means we should limit our international travel to only one trip every three years or so. Further, we should do as much of our travel as we can within the destination country by train or bus rather than by air. Those overland modes of transport will have the added advantage of allowing you to see the “real” country, rather than just its sanitised airports and city hotels.

6. The longer, the better

The longer you stay in one place, the more you’ll learn of the local language, the more you’ll understand the problems people face and the better you’ll be able to contribute towards long-term solutions. In our view, it actually takes several years to know a situation well enough to be able to help sensibly and sustainably. Most readers won’t be willing to go for years, but, by the same principle, several months in the same place will be much better for you and the people you meet, rather than a few weeks flitting all over the place.

If you can follow these tips, it’ll be much more likely that your overseas “voluntourism” trip will be useful for the people you visit, much more fulfilling for you and may even be life-changing.

Happy journey! Oh, and remember, don’t expect to find many flushing toilets during your travels.


Mark Delaney lives with his family in Lucknow, India. He recently co-authored a book, Low Carbon and Loving It! with his son, Tom Delaney. For further reading, he also recommends When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

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