VOLUNTOURISM: Why am I helping?
“ I am not attacking an industry that promotes neo-colonialism, I am questioning and attacking my own role in that industry”. Pippa’s (2015) words just got through my skin and into my deep consciousness and became my own. Being a health care professional has been deeply intertwined with forms of colonialism I wasn’t aware about until I saw myself judging other’s actions through the lenses of what I had learned during my training years as a clinical psychologist through mainly western oriented books that allowed little space to other models of health and well being.
As a therapist, I have to constantly ask myself about how and why I decide to help. This made me realize that the subject of volunteering is deeply connected with our profession and I felt the responsibility to share some of my reflections with you.
Neo-colonialism as a systematic strategy that dyes my whole “privileged white existence” and that both shaped me, my decisions and possibilities while my parents naively decided to raise me in a globalized, ethnocentric, white, catholic mindset. They never intended to do so, they just did. Victims of their own blind participation of a world-system that was never questioned by their ancestors nor the people around them, they just taught what they had learned. “You should eat your food because there are people in Africa starving to death and you are not”, was their way to motivate me to eat when I did not like something they had cooked. Today I recall those words and my appetite is lost all over again.
Growing up in a touristic area of México gave me a limited white perspective of the world and my own country. The people who lived before colonization in Cozumel and Riviera Maya where the Maya. The Maya, a rich Mesoamerican culture excelled at agriculture, pottery, hieroglyph writing, calendar-making and mathematics, and left behind an astonishing amount of impressive architecture and symbolic artwork. They also made significant advances including the use of the zero and the development of complex calendar systems. However, every “holy week” (catholic time that is meant to remember and honor the death of Christ on the cross) we went with my school to small villages around our city, where people with mayan roots lived. We brought food, toys, old clothes that used to be ours and we weren’t going to use anymore, and, of course, religious teachings to “bring God into their lives”. I don’t remember ever traveling around this villages to meet people, to hear about their believes, to ask them to teach me about their traditions, language and gods. I don’t remember ever having to learn mayan language in order to visit this places (where a lot of people speak fluently and some of them resist to learn Spanish with valid reasons), not in church nor in school. I only remember those weeks when we voluntouristed for five days, brought our own food because we were told the food there would be “dirty” and “disgusting” and our own inflatable beds to sleep comfortable. The focus was simple: continue with colonization that started in the fifteen hundreds in the Yucatan peninsula, and get a good “christian experience” so we could feel better the rest of the year for “sacrificing” our holidays at the beach for a better cause: “saving our mayan brothers from sin”.
What a power relationship I was invited to have with the people around me. How proud and entitled I learned to feel about a millenary culture that achieved so much thousands of years before the Spanish imperialism knocked at their doors. Nobody taught me to own my ignorance and travel as a tourist.
Biddle, Pippa (2016) refers to the good will of a lot of voluntourism that may be fuelled by noble feelings, but deep inside it is built on perverse economics, that the volunteers, most of the times are not aware of. Many organizations offer volunteers the chance to dig wells, build schools and do other construction projects in villages that live poorly (according, of course to the globalization development concept) . “It’s easy to understand why it’s done this way: if a charity hired locals for its unskilled work, it would be spending money. If it uses volunteers who pay to be there, it’s raising money” she says.
Today, after traveling, reading, meeting people around the world and being able to question the “whites man burden” (Kipling, 1899) that was imposed to me unwillingly, I see how violent the voluntourism can be in the wrong hands and done for the wrong reasons. Let’s consider three reasons that would make voluntourism a way of neocolonialism.
First of all, voluntourism attracts people around the world who are looking to feel better about themselves by helping others. The promise made by many organizations that recruit them is to improve others lives while having a life changing experience. The hook is rooted in an ethnocentric and selfish concept: you have done nothing special but just having the money to be able to travel and leave your home activities for a couple of weeks makes you apt and eligible to go and “change peoples lives”. Secondly, as expressed by Andrea Freidus, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Caroline, “voluntourism gets in the way of recognising the structural issues that create humanitarian crises”. In her opinion, which I share, research suggests that students who engage in such programs contribute to the mystification of larger system s that produce inequality, poverty and particular patterns of disease distribution as well as forms of violence”. The volunteers appear at certain place and bring “fast solutions” without understanding the underlying community needs and dynamics, they bring a hug, extra hands, some food… make people feel cared for by strangers and escape for a second of their reality (which by the way will stay the same once the volunteers leave at night) and then they leave. The concept is not sustainable, respectful nor strategic to bring improvements to peoples live. Some people in villages even end up doing the volunteers job that was poorly made so they don’t feel bad afterwards. This repeats the dominant-dominated position that conquerors way back created where what is more important is for the “visitor who brings goodies from the white world”, to feel good about themselves, even if that means bringing burden, more work or dependency on the community that is supposed to be helped. Third, the volunteerism tends to perpetuate the myth that change happens as a result of an expression of caring and help from “privileged people” (by the way mainly white) which contributes to the cycle of core-periphery reality in the world.
All mentioned, does not imply that voluntourists do always more harm than good. Simply by connecting to people from other cultures and spending some time with people who have different ideas, anyone can be benefitted. So even if the job done is not so skilled or adapted to the needs, there is an organic positive implication. However, at the same time, the harm is deep , and let me say this, not only in the negligence that happens by sending untrained volunteers for only a couple weeks that may put in danger instead of helping , but in the perpetuation of the imperialistic mindset in the world that keeps injustice, poverty and power abuse (political, economical, cultural) as the way in which countries and people relate to each other. This is the main danger that I see.
If a reform where to happen in the concept of the volunteerism to avoid neocolonial characteristics it would have to be a rebirth that would question the intentions and effects and that would be more like an anthropological observant-participant ethnographic experience (a phenomenological experience) and less a touristic industry. This sounds utopic because transnational organizations and profits are at risk if doing so. Nevertheless more and more people who actually care are open to do whatever it takes in order for their help to be useful and respectful . Most volunteers, as mentioned earlier, have good intentions and a desire to use their time in a good way, grow, get outside of their comfort zone, and learn from others. The change has to come then, in my opinion, from the organizations and governments so that it is made clear that the programs are to become part of the community in order to understand them and maybe someway in the path contribution can happen (in ways that locals consider useful ) .
Will we be humble and brave enough to address this matters and not only theoretically but owning them? Will I start being more careful in the way in which I arrive to a new place or person so that I avoid as much as possible my Neo-colonial biases?
Will I own my ignorance and travel as a tourist? Will I change my narrative when it comes to describing others? Will I trascend my ego and stop wanting to “teach” or believe that people “need” me? This and other questions stay with me after traveling through volunteerism lands. May I stay always aware of my colonialist footprint and work throughout my life to change a small piece of this huge puzzle by changing myself.
“You can visit , but if you do, do it beside me and hear who I am. Get to know me and not all those stereotypes about me. And then go home and see if there’s something you’re doing that somehow perpetuates my situation.”