Perspective: Voluntourism Does More Harm than Good

In August, 2013, Heather Ruiz traveled through West Africa as a journalist for ADRA. After working in development for nine months, Ruiz moved to a village in the Western Sahara to find answers for her questions about responsible volunteering and empowering communities. In the following article, she shares her reflections on constructive service.

It took me a while to find it. The taxi driver and I were shouting over each other in French about whether the orphanage was another street down or already behind us, but finally the crooked sign “Grace House” appeared in dripping, painted words. The driver lost no time in depositing me on the lonely street, and I felt more orphaned than ever before marching through the creaking gate.

Dirty floors and dim lights welcomed me inside. I did my best to prepare myself for what might come next — coughing invalids or stray chickens or skeleton babies — and I nearly stepped on top of bright red Sanuks.

“Who are you?” The voice caught me first, unmistakable in her accent.

“The journalist from ADRA. I called earlier about stopping by?” I found myself looking at… well, a stereotypical American College Student in all her glory: pink tank top shouting Abercrombie like a tag line to her expressionless face; Ray-Bans slipped into a highlight-streaked ponytail; I almost expected a Starbucks iced coffee to appear in her hand.

“Oh, I’m just here for a week before we go on the safari.” She shrugged. “I came to volunteer with a group from my university.”

I followed her through the halls and corridors to her squad in the main room, and there I found the chaos. Some children were dancing, others scaling volunteers’ laps and arms, still more were jumping in place as the uncontrollable excitement pummeled through their slender bodies.

“Green dress?” A volunteer was pulling clothing out of a cardboard box.

“Miiiiiiiine!” screeched every girl voice and, honestly, a few boy voices. They tore and clawed through the crowd, arms flailing out.

“Blue t-shirt? Yellow socks?” The voice continued.

“Hey, I have candy over here!” Another volunteer chimed in. Even the walls seemed to be quivering with pleasure. I discovered the director in the back of the room, smiling wide.

“How many volunteer groups do you get here?” I shouted over the din.

“Sometimes two a month,” he beamed proudly. “The volunteers cover almost all our staff.”

“You aren’t providing jobs for any local workers?” I repeated.

“Well, no.” He paused a moment, sensing the need to make it sound better. “We have so very many children here at Grace House. They need food and a home. They need help. Here, they get help.”

“Where do they come from before here?” I encouraged, reaching for my notepad.

“Terrible families. No food. So poor, you know.”

“Wait, they have families?”

“Half of them have families.” I was frozen for a moment, but the sad truth is such numbers are typical in African countries. After the wave of volunteers to orphanages in Ghana began to show signs of an abusive business enterprise, the Social Welfare Department organized a survey revealing that 90% of Ghanaian orphans have one or more living parent. The presence of volunteers visiting so many orphanages created “jobs” for children from families that could benefit from a few less mouths to feed.

“Some of these children have lost their parents and are emotionally susceptible at this stage,” I said gently. “Isn’t it damaging to further their never-ending cycle of abandonment from a revolving door of volunteers?”

“This is just the way it is.” The director crossed his arms. “We do this to make a difference the best we can, and you need to remember, this is for the volunteer, too. This experience is life-changing.”

I glanced at the group of college students, taking selfies with the animated children. No doubt this will be a series of profile pictures. For a moment, I wondered if the unidentified, romping, homeless children seemed reduced to the same status of elephants and zebras on the veld.

“So your grandfather sells shoes on the street so your sisters can eat?” I asked again to make sure I had gotten the French right.

“Yeah.” Hassan traced a stick around his bare toes. “As far back as I can remember. Can I have your watch?”

“No. I didn’t tell you that you could have it.”

“But the other volunteers give me things,” Hassan insisted.

“Well I came here to play with you.” I stared back stubbornly into his grinning eyes.

“Do you have an iPod in America?”

“Yes.”

“Can I have it?” Such wanting in those small eyes!

“No, Hassan. Keep telling me your story about your grandpa.”

“When I grow up, I’m going to America, because I want to buy things like what the volunteers have.” He pointed a stubby thumb at his bare chest. “I’ll be a rich man, like in the movies.”

“Hassan, has anyone told you about Jesus when they visited?” I knelt down on his level.

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “I know about him. I pray to him when the volunteers come. Do you have Angry Birds on your iPod? The volunteers showed me that game. I know how to play that game.”

“What else do the volunteers show you?”

Hassan began to mumble, not understanding the concern on my face. “The last volunteers gave me things,” he said hopefully.

This is demonstrative of the White Savior Complex and misplaced worship of the land of the White Man. Somehow, despite hearing that Jesus loves him, it's the message of Material Good that has driven his devotion, and he will worship the white saviors for their tangible gifts rather than bother with their Jesus. Will Hassan wake up tomorrow thinking about his grandpa, selling shoes to provide and sustain, or the next group of regaling volunteers?

Over time it has become apparent to me that collegiate volunteers need to re-prioritize and re-evaluate our approach to aid so that we use our resources to empower countries to develop themselves according to their own standards and not continue to hinder them with our own.

The “mission trip model“ praises individuals willing to sacrifice their time and money for impoverished communities, doing as Christ would. However, without knowledge of language, local culture, societal nuances, and the economical framework of the community, this type of “voluntourism” is oftentimes wasteful at best, and at worst, potentially destructive to the community.

The development industry, which previously consisted of agencies and governments giving and spending aid, is now joined by masses of enthusiastic college-aged hopefuls, wishing to change the world while knowing little to nothing about the complexities of the country. In 2010, $211.77 billion was spent on international volunteering,3 creating an industry devoted to the volunteer’s personal experience. The temptation to swoop in and fix a village’s hunger, poverty, and disease seems simple enough and personally fulfilling, but it presents Africa as “victims” and creates a feel-good spectacle for the volunteers. By sending out untrained volunteers, we are essentially saying that development work is “easy,” that our skills as middle-class twenty-somethings are so valuable that they can save a village, and that just because we are from the U.S., we are superior to the third-world countries that we aim to serve.

The complexities of Africa’s social and economic development remain unconsidered, and questions about how and why poverty exists are overshadowed by the aesthetic pleasure of the experience. After just a few months, the volunteer will come to realize their shortcomings and a part of them may give up, realizing that it’s not a simple answer.

It’s time to recognize that in pursuit of a service experience, we may be salving our own consciences without fully examining the consequences of the people we seek to help.

Teju Cole, addressed the topic of responsible volunteering on Twitter.

Cole has a point. Individuals fundraise for Africa, do a little good, experience something that their affluent lives cannot offer, and return home with a full memory card and a story that places them in the ranks of the kind-hearted and worldly wise.

But can’t there be more than an experience? Can’t we redirect this “voluntourism” industry to be sustaining and empowering local communities, so that good intentions will carry into good outcomes? As individuals from developed Western countries, shouldn’t we allow our role in international development to be defined not by our own interests but by the expressed needs of developing nations?

“Bring in the goat!” Cheikh Mohammed beckoned towards one of his wives. She returned a moment later with a blistering platter to add to the collection of feast foods. He motioned for me; we plunged our fingers into the meat.

After spending nine months with ADRA, I decided to leave with my unanswered questions about responsible third-world development and take a bush taxi deep into the Saharan interior. I wanted to see a community still relatively untouched from outside aid; I wanted to know how people can withstand hardships and sustain themselves by themselves. I wanted to see inner empowerment working for myself, a community not yet hobbled by dependency.

That’s how I found myself sharing dinner and conversation on the village chief’s rooftop each Thursday night, overlooking a cluster of low painted tents and the gingerbread-type houses breaking up the wide expanse of desert.

“Cheikh Mohammed, do your friends give you gifts?” I started in Arabic, breaking off a piece of village bread.

“Of course, it’s a friendly thing to do.” He adjusted his posture on the scratchy woven carpet.

“Now if I’m coming from America to give you gifts, am I your friend?”

His face darkened, and he chewed a great deal before he spoke.

“Heather, a donation is a very dangerous thing to give away. Your American world is filled with so many items and material goods, that you might not understand the gravity of handing something for free to someone who has never been handed anything.”

I watched him deliberately dip his bread into goat sauce and carefully chew, knowing that he would explain himself.

“Do you know what this village means? Generations of desert wanderers, learning and toiling for their bread and meat and homes. We are proud of this; we are empowered, by this. Now, give a village man a handout? You’ve just weakened him. You’ve increased his dependency; diminished his sense of self-esteem. One of the most widely-accepted notions is that Westerners are the solution to African problems. This requires portraying us as helpless and endlessly recirculating images only of abandonment and violence, or innocence and primitivism.”

I chewed on his Arabic words while he finished his bread.

“But poverty and hunger still exist, and our morality moves us to feed and clothe,” I broke into his silence.

“You asked me if my friends give me gifts,” he said. “Make sure that you are my friend. Make certain you understand me, first. Learn my strengths, my heart, my efforts. Once we are established in brotherhood, then yes, send me a present, one that won’t hurt me to open.”

“You see, Heather,” he set his meat down to look closely at me, "We are not weak. We are not underdeveloped. If you believe we must be helped, look more closely. We are content in our hearts, affectionate to each other, and attentive to our souls. Perhaps the greater need is for us to be helping you."

* * * * *

A reflex reaction to this critique of western volunteers may be to say, “At least they are doing something,” or “Wow, I guess we can’t really do anything,” but this would be lazy thinking. It’s not that our intention isn’t genuine, it’s that our analysis isn’t. As long as the West has the kind of economic, cultural and militaristic stronghold over places like Uganda, our hard work is still not targeting the root or causes of oppression. Our main goal should be evaluating foreign policies, which we play a direct role in electing, not short-term solutions that make us feel like we “done good.”

The Egyptian military, which is now suppressing the country’s once-hopeful movement for democracy and killing dozens of activists in the process, subsists on $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid. Nigeria is one of the top five oil suppliers to the U.S, and the American government did not see fit to support the Nigerian protests against one of the most corrupt governments. Haitian rice farmers have suffered appalling losses due to Haiti being flooded with subsidized American rice.

Uganda suffered when the Obama administration recently halted or reallocated an estimated $9 million in aid, cancelled regional military assistance over rebel activity, and barred Ugandans involved in human rights abuses from entering the U.S.A.

Isaiah 10:1-2a: “Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right…

Let us begin our involvement right here with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need to “make a difference” trumps all other matters. If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.

For orphans, we might provide resources to the capable families, donate for child sponsorship and feeding programs, assist at-risk mothers, and re-home children or develop a family model in orphanages. We could support vocational training and community-based initiatives. We should discuss this White Savior Complex and how to keep it out of ministry. We need to match volunteers with their existing skillset and require them to be integrated with their host communities, learning and listening to real needs.

Let’s befriend these fighters, these strong survivors, and then let’s refocus aid to further empower our friends.

Heather Ruiz has served as a Music Teacher at CIMAN Conservatoire des Arts et de la Musique and a journalist at ADRA Mauritania, and she is a student at Walla Walla University. This article originally appeared in the Walla Walla University Collegian, and has been reprinted here with permission.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6461

Wow Heather! Thank you for this beautiful clarity and perspective! I guess all short term missionaries really need to contemplate if we are serving in missions for our own experience or actually sacrificing to serve others. One trip is for self and one is for Jesus.

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“Do you know what this village means? Generations of desert wanderers, learning and toiling for their bread and meat and homes. We are proud of this; we are empowered, by this. Now, give a village man a handout? You’ve just weakened him. You’ve increased his dependency; diminished his sense of self-esteem. One of the most widely-accepted notions is that Westerners are the solution to African problems. This requires portraying us as helpless and endlessly recirculating images only of abandonment and violence, or innocence and primitivism.”

This village chief understands more about the crippling of humanity than America’s best social policy makers.

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If there is one thing that underdeveloped and developing countries have is unskilled labor. Importing it does little to help the local economy. What is needed, though, is skilled people who represent skills that are not available locally. Physicians, nurses, dentists, psychologists, social workers, agronomists and others are often greatly needed. These skilled volunteers are important to the health and welfare of people, and if used properly, provide training to locals to continue working when volunteers are not available. This training is often difficult to come by in many countries because of its expense or the lack of educational opportunities in skilled occupations and trades.

The mission where I grew up not only trained nurses, lab techs, teachers and pastors but also employed people in the every day running of the mission, its physical infrastructure and in producing food for the mission. At the time, professional missionaries were the model used for the church. Now, so many missionaries are volunteers. They may lack the opportunity to create relationships, train people, employ them and in other ways become part of the community.

The development industry is famous for swooping in with their expensive 4-wheel drive SUV’s for a time-limited project and then leaving without adequately addressing the issues in the area in a holistic way that provides long-term benefit.

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What an interesting article! Thank you!!
I´ve always thought that is is quite easy to go there, and leave some stuff, give away some items that makes you feel good. But really fighting for justice is much harder. And it can even be done here at home, even in our own church.

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Do “Volunteer short term” Missionaries have to go through an Orientation to Missions Class prior to going to learn the do’s and dont’s of behavior and dress while there [where ever they are going]?
At a local Baptist church here in town that works with a lot of mission groups, there is a 4-hour Orientation Class one HAS to take if one is even considering going on a mission trip. Then if one actually signs up for a specific one, there are a number of hours of orientation beyond that.
One of the things they stress is NOT coming home with empty suitcases.

Description of a visit to an orphanage in Western Sahara coupled with a commentary on the business of orphanages in Ghana in support of what voluntourism may look like elsewhere? Where are we? North Africa? What foreign language is spoken there?


Africa, to my knowledge, is a continent composed of many nations, tribes and varied colonial histories.

There is a need for skilled interns To spend at least an academic year in missions equipped with senior mentors. Tom Z.

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The orphanages described here exist in Malawi also.

The book you are looking for is “Africa Doesn’t Matter: How the West Has Failed the Poorest Continent and What We Can Do About It” ( http://www.amazon.com/Africa-Doesnt-Matter-Poorest-Continent/dp/1559708786/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1417657996&sr=8-1&keywords=africa+doesn’t+matter )

Giles is really brutally honest.

There are two areas in Africa where the West can really help

(1) Educating the educators
(2) Building the transportation infrastructure

Instead we destroy their farmers and save their weakest causing them to become on continuous burden on their society.

The trouble with doctors is they think that treating the sick is the most important thing. In reality it is making the healthy more productive, if necessary by letting the sick die.

But Western sensibilities/stupidities don’t allow such pragmatism.

And yes, the Christian mission trips are a massive waste of money aimed at giving Western Christian’s an emotional high while doing very little for the locals.

Please tell me you are kidding. The death of “the weak and sick” is as much a tragedy to people in poverty as it is to you and me in the developed world.

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I am currently reading “The Last Gentleman Explorer”, the autobiography of an English man who joined the Hudson Bay Company circa 1930 and went to the northern-most coastal trading post in Hudson Bay.

He recounts an interview with an elderly Eskimo (the polite term at the time) woman, and her description of the standard Eskimo practice of leaving the very sick and infirm elderly behind to die when they moved camp.

The death of such is necessary because the society is living so close to the edge that spending resources to stretch their lives will shorten others, possibly leading to the demise of the whole clan.

Our inability to take such pragmatic decisions is the sign of a wealthy society.

Our inability to choose wisely where to spend our resources is the sign of a society which is failing to educate its members to think clearly.

My father, currently in his mid '80’s, is recommending I read “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End”. My daughter is a surgical resident who has recently been doing geriatric oncology rotations. Both tell the same message - we are spending too much keeping people alive rather than giving them comfortable endings.

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This sounds like it is a problem in the developed world, specifically the Unites States. Where medical care is not available a bout of diarrhea may mean death for an infant. A visit to the dentist my save someone years of pain. Antimalarials could save millions of lives in their prime productive years. Babies are malnourished, women die in childbirth. Infants die of preventable disease. This is not about putting too many resources into people, it is about providing a basic level of care.

Where quality of life depends on living to provide for your family or having them destitute then there should be no discussion whether that person needs medical care.

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Christian mission trips a massive waste of money.
I happen to disagree that this is so. I think it has more to do on why it is done, and how it is conducted.
It should be done with the plan to have the most lasting effect on the people group being visited. It is true it should not be an EGO TRIP for the persons going. The group needs to understand the culture and the ability to function after the group leaves.
Our Priest is a former Pharmacist and goes with a group every year in Jan to Honduras. He manages the medications for the group. They also do dental work. They want to take a LOT of tooth brushes down this year. He hopes to take 2 suitcases full himself from donations. While down there they see a lot of work injuries, machete injuries.
My Sunday church has been involved with an elementary school in Trouan, Haiti, 25 mi SE of Port-au-Prince for the last 10 years. What began as a 1000$ a year project is now almost 50,000$ [not part of the church budget]. Almost 300 kids, some who walk 3 hours to and 3 hours home. Many the ONLY meal is at Supper in the evening. So we fund a lunch program for them. Provide money to have uniforms made by local people. We do send school supplies down as they are not easily available on the open market. We pay for 12 teacher salaries. After the earthquake we had to replace the school, and purchased one similar to SDA one day church buildings and the company went down and erected it with the help of the locals. 2 years ago another church in GA, 2 in VA, and 1 in NC heard about our project and have joined us and now we are developing a Vocational program in the “high school” age kids with teachers. We are helping with a Goat Program. Give a family a female goat and the first live one is given back to the Goat Program to give away to another family. We put in solar panels for electricity to operate the computers and lights in the class rooms. We send a delegation down 3 to 4 times a year for 1. to check on how our money is being used, 2. Provide teacher training sessions. 3. To see if we can facilitate meeting other needs not previously identified. 3. Maintain contact with Administration and reinforce the need for receiving an accounting every month of funds spent and how. We do a lot of email contact with Administration. Sometimes telephone. At one monthly meeting with our group, the Administrator in charge called and said Hello. We have had him to St Francis several times so we could meet him and he could meet all of us. This began as just a Sunday School class project after studying Acts. But as you can see it has taken on a life of its own, but is a member driven project and NOT a church project as such.
We have a Volunteer Committee called Outreach which the church organized. All the community programs we are involved in comes through ideas from this group. We are involved in over half dozen community groups, many of them needing man hours or resources we can collect. We are represented on the Boards of several of them. Most of our Community involvement is member inspired and member initiated, NOT Pastor or Church Board initiated. And that is why it stays such a strong program. Pastors change, Board members change, but Community involvement, Haitian involvement is not affected. The members RUN the church. Should we have no Pastor, no Church Board, the member RUN church would continue on, continue to develop, continue to maintain close knit friendships through working together.

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Carolyn
You growing up on the “Front Lines” I am sure you have seen where taking inventory of a people group and then making some small changes in their life style has greatly enhanced their productivity, perhaps has reduced infant-child mortality numbers, increased longevity and productivity even to old age.
Prevention is a huge part of Cure.
I see where an organized group of Volunteers can sometimes do a project that cannot be done by the staff working with some people groups. That is why I take issue with Bevin’s blanket statement that Christian mission trips are a massive waste of money, and is only providing an “emotional high” for the participants.
A group of Laurelbrook Academy alumni a number of years ago [about 30] went to Cayman Brac to redo the pastor’s house. We worked for 2 weeks, began our morning work at 5am to 2pm [because of the heat factor in the afternoon]. It was NOT an emotional high. It was work! But, at the end of the 2 weeks we were proud of the improved living quarters we had produced with collective effort.
There isnt much the US can do with government officials mis-management of their government and moneys that come into the coffers. The inability of the people to change their government officials from selfish self-serving persons. Government mis-management and gross mis-use of government money is seen in ALL cultures including the US. Even in the US we elect new faces in government and things continue the same.
The only thing we can do is Remember this. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. Livingston, Florence Nightengale, Mother Theresa, Gandhi all did not plan on what they accomplished. They just protested in their little corner. And that is what we have to do. Make a difference with what we see where we are. That is TRUE Christian Volunteerism. When the challenge gets too big, invite others to join in helping to make a change.
It might even call for making a Mission Trip.

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Choosing the right medical care to give is a problem everywhere, because you are dealing with emotional people who argue (usually) that the money should be spent on their children rather than someone else’s, regardless of the real net benefit to society.

Providing a basic level of care is good IF it is evenly spread across all the necessary areas. It makes no sense to keep infants alive so that they can starve or die in warfare as teens. It makes no sense to grow a huge populace during “seven years of feast” so that they all die in the subsequent “seven years of famine”. It makes no sense to invest lots of money in coping with diseases that should be prevented more cheaply.

Unless, of course, you are the person being paid to provide the care, in which case suddenly it makes sense to spend millions on transporting a baby from Africa and giving it expensive medical treatment at your hospital, rather than sending a few thousand dollars to Africa to train teachers.

Thank you, Heather, for a wonderful article. You are wise beyond your years.

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A brilliantly written piece. Than you Heather.

This is something I’ve struggled with for some time. I cringe when I see people who travel to Africa post selfies with destitute children. Those look more like trophies of having achieved a higher spiritual plateau of “service” than real, long term concern for the children. They soon leave to go back to the comfort of their homes and people are left holding the bag. No real change has occurred.

For the last three years our family has sponsored two girls in Brazil. The money we sent has helped put them through a Christian education. This seems to be more appealing and coherent than quick, rather condescending “missionary” trips to and fro. By the way, we chose an organization with less overhead than ADRA.

Again, thanks for shining a light on this problem.

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Thank you so much for this article. I spent almost 6 years as a missionary from my church to an orphanage in Haiti. I was there for 5 months before I even realized that most of our kids had parents and some of them worked for our organization! Surely, with full-time work, these parents could take their children home and we could scholarship their education at our school, right? Nope. Absolutely ZERO work was done to reunify families or attempt any social work. No effort was made except to create and sustain dependency. Thank you for this important post.

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