Photo: Pippa Biddle

On the Sticky Ethics of Voluntourism

by Richard Stupart Mar 14, 2014

THE DEBATE ABOUT THE APPROPRIATENESS of voluntourism — how best to do it, where to do it, or whether it’s ethical to attempt at all — has been a very sensitive subject both with readers here at Matador and across the internet more broadly, judging from the literally millions of views and thousands of comments directed at Pippa Biddle’s recent piece on little white girls and boys volunteering in the developing world (which Matador republished earlier this week).

I caught up with Pippa to ask her more about the impact her story has had, and her thoughts on the ethics of the market for voluntourism.

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RS: What has the feedback to your piece been from people who go on, or provide, voluntourism opportunities? Has it been self-reflective at all?

PB: The feedback on my post has been varied. I knew the topic, and the way that I addressed it, would be controversial. What I didn’t expect was how far the piece would spread. Moderating the 600+ comments on the post on my blog alone (not including comments on Medium, Thought Catalog, Huff Po Impact, etc.) was a learning experience.

I started off by reading each one but, very quickly, realized it would be better for my mental health and work schedule to just approve them. I believe in freedom of speech, so the only comments I have not approved were spam. This means that there can sometimes seem to be a lot of hate on my blog — I like to think of it as lively conversation.

Do you think it would’ve been possible for you to reach the same point of self-reflection on how best to help distant communities without your awkward first attempts at volunteering? Is unhelpfully trying to help others an inevitable step to getting it right?

I can’t remark on what would have been possible or impossible, as I’m not living two parallel lives. I do believe that a negative experience, even with an eventual positive outcome, is not justified by that outcome. I could have learned a similar lesson volunteering in my own community and it would have had much fewer costs.

Often, well-intentioned potential-voluntourists are aware of how problematic the practice can be, but are at a loss for a better, less ethically fraught way of making a difference. What would your advice to them be?

If you are looking for volunteer/advocacy work, look local. Organizations that support global causes through local initiatives, and that I respect, include She’s the First, Pencils of Promise, and Roots & Shoots.

I also believe that traveling for the sake of exploration and adventure is hugely important. It is imperative that young people are smart about where they travel, how they travel, and who they travel with. By embracing your role as a visitor you can, I have found, create a power dynamic weighted in favor of the locals.

What are your thoughts on voluntourism and voluntour operators as an industry? Do you think it’s problematic to have a market for companies to make money off providing a foreign stage for people to act out their good intentions?

I think that it is naive to think any company or nonprofit that sends young people to the developing world for “service” trips does not have to be researched thoroughly. Many of these programs spend upwards of 60% of income on advertising. That is crazy to me. They are (with some exceptions) programs that are in the business of generating profits.

Social enterprises are great, but sometimes we get so caught up in the glamour of the mission that we forget to do our due diligence on the program orchestrating it. It is up to each individual to take the time to do that research and make an informed decision on whether they should go themselves.

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