About ‘voluntourism’, ‘white saviours’ and how volunteering can be actually harmful

Tinder profiles from the Tumblr blog 'Humanitarians of Tinder'

Tinder profiles from the Tumblr blog ‘Humanitarians of Tinder’

Is short-term volunteering really helpful? Or is it rather entitled, promotes racist and neo-colonial stereotypes like the one of a ‘third world’ and serves solely as a status symbol for white tourists? Recently I read an article shared by a friend of mine which proposed self-reflecting questions to aspiring ‘voluntourists’ going to Africa. The topic made me think and look deeper into the topic, especially in regards to Spicyroad.

For everyone who is not familiar with the word, ‘voluntourism’ describes the act of linking a holiday in a most of the time exotic country with short-term volunteering. It has gained great popularity but has also started being criticized for often doing more harm than good or at the very least being incredibly ineffective. Furthermore, there is the racist and belittling ‘white saviour’ complex that often goes along with it. A ‘white saviour’ is a white person who thinks they can solve the problems of other people in developing countries, therefore seeing themselves and their ideas as superior to them.

Since then, I’ve read a lot of articles about the issue and came to judge our actions according to them. The main question towards voluntourists throughout the articles was: ‘Are you doing this for yourself or the people you’re volunteering for?’.

It’s a tricky one because for me personally, it’s a bit of both. I really want to sustainably support people that can use my help and at the same time, I’ve been enjoying the work, learned a lot and I’m definitely also doing this for myself.

Let’s jump into the discussion why this question is so important and how something supposedly selfless like volunteering can become harmful. In the articles I read, the authors would repeatedly point out two key reasons responsible for this harmful kind of voluntourism: The view of volunteering in a developing country as a status symbol and the simplifying of complex problems that are far away from yourself together with the assumption that people in developing countries wouldn’t be able to create solutions for those. 

Advertisement from the volunteering agency projects-abroad.org

Advertisement from the volunteering agency projects-abroad.org

‘If designer clothes and fancy cars signal material status, his story of a deliberate embrace of poverty and its discomforts signals superiority of character’ writes Rafia Zakaria about her friend Jack, who keeps telling the story of him volunteering for a summer in Columbia. I can definitely see this, also on myself. If you have volunteered in another part of the world, you suddenly become more interesting for others and are generally seen as a better person. You will have stories and pictures to share about the hard life there and crazy culture shocks you might’ve experienced. More than once I’ve caught myself putting me above others because I tried to change something and wouldn’t live the luxurious life of a ‘standard’ tourist. It is a very human reaction, but it is inherently arrogant, wrong and promotes volunteering for the wrong reasons.

The second reason, being the simplification of decontextualized problems, is in my opinion exposed well in the thought-provoking example of Courtney Martin in ‘The Reductive Seduction Of Other People’s Problems’ where she describes the perspective of a fictional student from Uganda who scrolls over the news of a mass shooting in the US, in a town called San Bernardino. He’s never heard of it. He’s never been to the US. But he’s certainly heard a lot about about gun violence and the killing of innocents in mass shootings in the US. He might think to himself: ‘Obviously the weapons are the problem. Maybe I could go there and start a campaign to ban fire weapons, maybe I could after a little while even start projects over the whole country. In the end, everybody probably would be thankful and I might even get a humanitarian award for it.’

Sounds crazy, naive and offensive towards the work of US activists? Probably, but that’s how a lot of white people think about the Global South. Americans are probably closer to the problem and know that the issue is a very complex one, with a strong lobby for guns and a right to bear them in the constitution. But that often will not occur to us for issues in another country.

Through thoughts like these, they infantilize people in developing countries by assuming that those can’t see the big picture like people from developed countries do. They think that they, foreigners, have to save the locals. And often, even people in these countries start to believe this as it’s always portrayed like this right in front of them. This can lead to passiveness and therefore cause the opposite of change but halt every progress. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of voluntourists have only the best in mind, but simply their presence can be detrimental to the development of the community they’re trying to support.

Along the same issues runs something that I’ve heard mentioned a lot by organisations we met on our journey, it is the willingness of people from developed countries to donate for emergency help and starving children, but not for infrastructure and staff. This might stem from the fact that these people want to help the most with the money they’re donating and think that it is most needed in emergency situations. Well, they’re probably not wrong about that. But real change doesn’t come from keeping people barely alive. It comes from job opportunities, education and, in general, perspectives. And unfortunately, that is not very glamorous.

SWEDOW flowchart

SWEDOW flowchart

The reason why the humanitarian and aid-critic Scott Gilmore felt the need to create his SWEDOW-chart (Stuff We Don’t Want) is that many people donate goods without informing themselves if they are even needed and often probably just for the sole purpose of donating them and feeling better about themselves.

I think an obvious approach for all these issues is self-reflection on an informed basis; Becoming aware of your immense privilege compared to the locals and judging your motivation and the effectiveness of your help. Once you are informed you might understand the complexity of the problems better and change your perspective on it. You might question if this work of yours – in which you might have no experience – will really benefit the community you’re opting to support. And you might discover that you mostly do it to be regarded as a selfless, caring person by others. Two good questions for this that the article which initially sparked my interest put out were ‘Would you do it if you couldn’t take your camera?’ and ‘Would you trust yourself enough to do this job in your own country?’. If you feel like you can use a volunteering opportunity as a playground to try out if you like building a house but not dare to dothe this in your hometown, then that’s a problem.

Within Spicyroad, we try to self-reflect by often speaking about our privileges which allow us to travel around and often get respected on our journey just because of our skin colour or the general fact that we’re foreigners. I think this is very important and every single one of us had to challenge some of their thought patterns during our journey. It can be uncomfortable, but it is an absolute necessity if we really want to have a positive impact.

That being said, I think that us building connections to people that we meet on our way and also looking into the work of NGOs which tackle grave problems eliminates stereotypes and gives us a much better understanding of the situations and also an emotional connection to things that we often just brush off if we hear about them in the news. In no way we expect to save the world, but in the future we can hopefully help in a more sustainable way with the knowledge we acquire.

It is true, the most effective way of helping might be to just work in our respective homecountries and to donate the money we earn directly, but I strongly believe that it is possible and even important to combine supporting those in need with the egoistic wish of your own happiness. That is the idea behind Spicyroad: To do something that we love and would probably do anyways – travelling and hitchhiking – with the aim of having a positive impact at the same time. I think nowadays we often underestimate how important our own happiness is to help others. I’m aware of the sad fact that most people don’t have my opportunities and I hope that this will change in the future. But I’m convinced it is important to do something which makes you happy and that you are passionate about as the work you do will be immensely better and also more sustainable.



For everyone who is interested in the topic and wants to read further into it, go into the links below. The authors express the problematics more precisely than I can and give advices for people opting to go for voluntourism.