The “Third World” isn’t your photo op

The phenomenon of Western youth travelling to the Global South to volunteer is problematic

Jane Willsie argues that untrained Western youth ‘volunteering’ in the ‘Third World’ is ineffective and hardly altruistic.
Image by: Arwin Chan
Jane Willsie argues that untrained Western youth ‘volunteering’ in the ‘Third World’ is ineffective and hardly altruistic.

Jane Willsie, ArtSci ’17

It’s a common sight on anyone’s Facebook news feed: photos of an acquaintance that travelled to the Global South and took numerous “selfies” with local children.

I recently saw photos of a former high school classmate – a girl that went on a trip to a developing country to carry out some philanthropic endeavour that, judging by the pictures of her perched on a wall of laid bricks, was building a house or a school.

Far from being self-sacrificing, these trips actually do more harm than good.

Youth from the West, the idea goes, voluntarily choose to give up a life of luxury to help others. It’s a choice to experience material hardship without actually understanding what that hardship is, what causes it and where it comes from.

The phenomenon of “voluntourism” solidifies the Global South as the “Third World”, and prevents young people from understanding where widespread poverty actually stems from. It validates the neo-colonial belief that non-Western countries should be adopting Western values.

It creates the assumption that a small village in Haiti, for example, is desperately in need of a building constructed by Western high school students.

Before sending students abroad, the organizations that promote these trips should aim to educate them on the history of the Global South and identify effective solutions on what can be done to improve existing infrastructures in developing countries.

Without training or experience, it’s highly unlikely that these youth can be expected to contribute anything truly valuable to a building site within a week before they hop on their return flight.

Pippa Biddle, a youth NGO representative to the United Nations, wrote in the Huffington Post last year about a trip she took to Tanzania to build a library when she was in high school. She said the students’ construction work was so structurally unsound that locals tore down their work during the night and rebuilt it, so that the students wouldn’t be discouraged by their failure.

Columnist Rafia Zakaria illustrated this type of trip’s utter lack of efficiency in an article she wrote for Al Jazeera America in April 2014, called “The White Tourist’s Burden”.

Although volunteer trips seem benevolent on the surface, Zakaria wrote, its purpose is “singular” in that it only serves the volunteer in their search for a self-reflective experience.

“Voluntourism” is often promoted in Canada by organizations like Me to We, which was founded in 2008 by brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger. Me to We has organized thousands of volunteer trips to East Africa, India, China, Nicaragua and other places since 2008.

Me to We is a for-profit business and not a charity. Each year, the organization gives half of its profit margin to Free the Children, a charity that aims to empower youth to make a positive impact on society.

Like any for-profit business, Me to We needs to draw in customers. They strive to do this by branding their product as something that’s attractive to the consumer, but not necessarily beneficial to the recipients of their projects.

Me to We’s website details the benefits of volunteering abroad, including hiking trips through the countryside and opportunities to play with local children. “In today’s competitive job market,” the webpage reads, “a Me to We trip experience adds a unique element to your resume.”

The masthead of their volunteer trips webpage displays the slogan “Discover the World, Discover Yourself.”

Rather than benefitting people living in the developing world, flying groups of youth to these countries brings untrained workers into sites where they’ll face difficult – and very real – situations they may not be equipped to handle.

Al Jazeera released a report in 2012 asserting “voluntourism” contributed to increased exploitation of Cambodian children. Trip payments from volunteers often flow directly to orphanage owners, while orphaned children can face adverse psychological effects from forming and ending new relationships with volunteers every few weeks.

Those who suffer from the effects of poverty in these countries do so as a result of an incredibly complex geopolitical system that has been formed over centuries of Western supremacy and colonial invasion.

The State of Consumption Today, published online by the Worldwatch Institute, argues the natural world’s resources are consumed disproportionately, heavily in the favour of developed countries.

They estimate there’s 1.9 available hectares of productive land per person – yet the average American uses 9.7 hectares, in comparison to the average Mozambican, who uses 0.47.

Attempting to step into the shoes of the less fortunate is an interesting experiment for Westerners with a ticket home in their back pocket. But we shouldn’t forget that another person’s hardship isn’t a ride at an amusement park; it’s something to be respected, not appropriated.

Instead of extending an equalizing hand from one denizen of the world to another, this type of crusading, philanthropic zeal makes large populations of people into nothing more than victims to be pitied.

Sending “help” to these countries would be better off in the form of trained, experienced volunteers who aren’t looking for a brief stint in the “Third World”, and who have a deeper understanding of the region they’re working in.

Next time you see photos of “voluntourists”, question their purpose and how much we can expect to improve through the continuation of this one-sided practice.

Jane Willsie is a second-year English major.


charity, global south, Me to We, Travel, Volunteer

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