Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Voluntourism, Really?

From Kathryn Joyce’s The Child Catchers (full review to come), there is this brief statement about what is sometimes called “voluntourism“:

“Voluntourism” has been criticized in recent years for doing more harm than good. A 2010 report by the Human Sciences Research Council on AIDS orphan tourism in Southern Africa found that global trends of voluntourism often centered around orphanages, with wealthy Westerners paying to spend time on their vacations or mission trips playing with institutionalized children. Too often, wrote report coauthors Linda Richter and Amy Norman, the emotional needs of the tourists are the key focus of these trips, as visitors seek personal fulfillment by forging immediate emotional connections with orphanage children. But after the tourists leave, the children suffer yet another abandonment, leading to a pattern of intense connection and loss that is detrimental to their emotional well-being and development. (7)

The very name “voluntourism” ought to turn your stomach. Acts of mercy and charity are not the kinds of things you can simply work into your vacation. More importantly, they are not about you. It’s the other person’s well-being that ought to be primary.

But as I think about it, this sort of thing has been around for a while. A Mexican friend from seminary used to complain about the “mission trips” which would come to northern Mexico, build a house, and then go home. “We have contractors in Mexico, you know,” he would say. “That’s not ‘missions.'” Missions is actually being a part of someone’s life for real. It isn’t a feel-good one-off experience. Sometimes folks will look down their nose at giving money to other charitable institutions instead of actually getting “personally involved,” but wouldn’t it actually make more sense to fund a permanent group with experience and success than to simply dive in for a moment and then going back home, no strings attached?

Of course, it’s not just Christians that fall for this stuff. This is exactly the sort of market do-gooderism that appeals to the American crusader. It’s just a variant of Stuff White People Like (combine it with this one for the full picture).

This article goes into more detail about the dangers of voluntourism and what real volunteering requires.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.