The Issue with Voluntourism

January 28, 2021


Students in Utah often search for extracurricular activities to enhance their college applications, often leaning towards volunteer service and school clubs. But some students choose to adventure outside of their local communities and embark on “service-learning trips”, or voluntourism. These trips often put more fortunate students in an area where they can volunteer to help less fortunate communities for a few weeks. These trips have good intentions, but they end up having quite a negative impact on the communities they visit. Generally, people living in the West impose their own cultures on these communities with little regard for their culture.

The students that visit these communities often take little time to learn from the culture of the country they’re visiting, and instead choose to provide academic, medical, or infrastructural care from a Western perspective. This Western support generally provides little sustainable help to the communities in need, since it is catered around the volunteers and what they are used to, not what the community ​needs. ​This culture-shock can harm the communities more than help, but the volunteers generally don’t notice the downsides of their visit.

But these attitudes aren’t only seen in these trips. It’s also applicable in cases like “KONY 2012”, a video published on YouTube that detailed an African war criminal who was under arrest and called for help. Americans ate this up, and the video quickly became a phenomenon, spawning t-shirts, buttons, rallies, and much more. Simply put, the video created a “big emotional experience that validates privilege”, according to novelist Teju Cole, which is similar to these voluntourism trips.

The truth is, for many students, there are several opportunities that are available right in their hometowns that will make just as much of an impact. Local food banks and shelters are always welcoming helping hands, especially during the times of COVID-19. But it seems like students choose to participate in voluntourism simply because they want to have that “life-changing experience” in a place like Peru or Thailand (both trips that are currently bookable on the EF Tours service-learning site) as opposed to their own towns. They want to be able to say that they’ve traveled to these places and done good, which in many cases, they haven’t.

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