The following piece is from Lilia Sebouai, an aspiring newspaper journalist who recently interned with The Telegraph. The debate over ‘voluntourism’ is becoming ever more prominent amongst the younger demographics. Have a read and see where you stand on it. A really well-written and thoughtful piece. LW
Since I was 12, volunteering to teach English in Africa has been at the top of my bucket list. When I was in year 7, our school started to support EducAid – a charity that provided education to children in Sierra Leone, once the poorest country in Africa. Every year, we had regular assemblies where we were told personal stories of children who had been orphaned, faced disease, homelessness and death, but who now had renewed hope in their lives due to the work of EducAid. The charity placed a lot of emphasis on female empowerment, and giving young girls access to education and a safe environment to learn in. They not only provided these children with an education, but also a family and home. The assemblies had their intended effect. They struck a chord in me — the stark contrast between my daily life and the horrors faced by these children. I always left the hall looking at my school, my home, my family in a new light. I wanted to go to Sierra Leone and help the school I had heard so much about in any way possible, although they didn’t have a program or facilities for a young solo volunteer, so I tried to find something similar.
It’s not hard to find gap year volunteering placements in Africa. My first Google search brought thousands of results. And after a lot of research, I settled on a company that in various countries across Africa, with volunteers teaching English and running sport activities for children in a local school. The programs are all the same. You don’t pick your school based on where help is needed, or what volunteering you’ll be doing. Rather, each place was marketed for its tourist opportunities. You could volunteer in Tanzania and also climb Mount Kilimanjaro during the half-term break, or you could teach in Ghana and go white water rafting on the weekends. I decided to settle on Kenya, where, according to the website, our teacher training was held on the white sand beaches of Diani, and our camp was based in culture-rich Mombasa. I couldn’t wait to travel to the other side of the world and immerse myself in a new culture.
Then I saw a post on Instagram, and I started to re-evaluate my trip. Kaz Crossley (the Love Island star from season 4) posted a compilation of photos and videos from when she volunteered in an orphanage a few years back. They showed her playing with the children, many of whom were disabled. The caption reads: “Thanks to @wearekomodo for creating the #thankstotravel hashtag to celebrate moments like this. I love travelling and partying around the world however it’s the moments like this what humbles me.” I must admit, my first reaction was one of admiration, thinking about how she’d taken time out of her busy schedule to do something altruistic. I scrolled back through her Instagram until I got to her original post in March 2018, where the caption read: “Today I volunteered at an charity run orphanage just outside Nha Trang… the orphanage was inside beautiful temple grounds and I had the best day playing with the children.” You can view the post here.
She had only volunteered there for a single day. I re-read her most recent post, with the hashtag #thankstotravel — an orphanage reduced to a holiday highlight on her exotic trip. I tapped on the company @wearekomodo that she tagged: it’s a social agency specialising in ‘influencer marketing’. She profited from the experience. In the caption she asks us to “celebrate moments like these”. Celebrate? Celebrate what? Her post is all about her, riddled with narcissism, channelling a self-serving ‘white-saviour’, as she describes how she is “humbled” by the fleeting glance she had into a world of poverty.
This is how I learned the phrase voluntourism, an issue I only narrowly dodged. Voluntourism is the merging of volunteering and tourism, the popular trend of middle-class westerners, often straight out of private school, who travel abroad in disadvantaged areas. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to volunteer your time and help to make a difference — it’s something I still feel strongly about, and want to do. But dig a little deeper and it’s clear that orphanage tourism is not helping. In fact, it fuels an exploitative industry where children are reduced to tourist attractions. Indeed, in 2019 the British government revised its travel advice to prevent tourists from visiting or volunteering in orphanages, saying it could have “serious unintended consequences”.
As J.K. Rowling, founder and president of the charity Lumos (fighting to end the institutionalised care of children worldwide) stated: “Despite the best of intentions, the sad truth is that visiting and volunteering in orphanages drives an industry that separates children from their families and put them at risk of neglect and abuse.” She went on: “Do not volunteer in orphanages. Instead, look at what drives children into institutions and dedicate your time to projects that tackle poverty or support communities with vital services”.
Globally, over 80% of children living in orphanages have one living parent. The key reason that children usually end up in orphanages is poverty: parents are forced to give up their children as they cannot afford to care for them. Children belong with their families. They need the support and constancy that a family provides, not the fake attachments created by the regular turnover of unskilled volunteers who lack the relevant training and experience (this video illustrates the issue). Your donations don’t help orphans, they create them. Indeed, orphanages can be up to 10 times more expensive than caring for a child in a family environment. You can help these children by supporting or volunteering with charities and projects that aim to tackle poverty or inequalities in healthcare and education. Rather than disabling the families, make them able.
As I read more about the issue, I felt more and more uneasy. I questioned whether there could be any form of ethical volunteering? Should all western volunteers be criticised for ignorantly swooping in on impoverished places with their colonial baggage, despite their good intentions. Or is there a danger in being overly cynical? Too reactive? The fine line that’s most important to interrogate is the question of who is reaping the most rewards: the volunteer or the children they’re supposed to be helping? Volunteers do deserve criticism if they don’t make a concerted effort to recognise that the people they work with are citizens with human rights, rather than objects of charity. From there, they can begin to create genuine structural change.
A few things that I’ve learnt:
- Avoid the assumption that teaching English and taking care of children are the only options.
- You must volunteer for longer than 2 weeks to make a real impact, many organisations ask for a minimum of 4 weeks commitment.
- My trip to Kenya was cancelled due to coronavirus, and where I was initially devastated, I now have a clearer sense of what I want to achieve with the time I spend volunteering. I have steered my search away from the over-priced and commercial programs targeted at students and I am now looking for genuine small grassroots organisations that rely on volunteers to keep their projects running. Rather than my trip becoming an unconscious photo op, I would personally like to remain offline.
- Three-minute tongue in cheek video from ICS volunteers – showing what happens when you haven’t done your research
- Let’s save Africa! – Gone wrong
- The Love You Give – the untold story of orphanages
You can find Lilia on Instagram: @liliasebouai. Feedback is always welcome to TNS as well: @thenakedstudent_.