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Social Justice, Colonialism and Reforming Voluntourism

By Jessica Lockhart

Travellers are beginning to recognize privilege; a huge step forward in conversations about voluntourism. A Q&A with author Pippa Biddle.

In 2014, “voluntourism” was on the precipice of entering our cultural lexicon. Once an activity dominated by NGOs and eager undergrads, volunteering abroad was suddenly being offered by tour operators, resorts and even cruise ships. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to get a piece of the feel-good pie.

It was also the year that 22-year-old Pippa Biddle arrived on the scene, thinking that she’d written the book—or at least the essay—on the pitfalls of voluntourism.

“Honestly, I thought I’d come up with the word ‘voluntourism,’” recalls Biddle, now 29, referring to the title of her viral blog post, The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism. Detailing her experiences in the Dominican Republic and Tanzania—where each night, local construction workers had to redo the volunteers’ work—the article was picked up by the Huffington Post and read by more than two million people.

It also attracted the attention of a literary agent, who approached Biddle to write a “fun, easy, playful read” on “how to do voluntourism better.” Biddle jumped at the opportunity but hit a roadblock nearly as soon as she began.

“The more I learned, the more I realized there was no way I thought voluntourism could be done better,” she says. Tackling the topic would require an entirely different approach—and a new agent.

Now, seven years later, Biddle is back and celebrating the launch of her debut book: Ours to Explore: Privilege, Power, and the Paradox of Voluntourism. But don’t let the empowering title mislead you. By Biddle’s own admission, Ours to Explore isn’t an optimistic take on the industry. Instead, it’s a critical discussion that introduces voluntourism as an act of contemporary colonialism—with development agencies, international aid programs and trip providers taking up roles once played by colonial governments and militaries. Yet, Biddle also acknowledges and understands firsthand the importance of cultural exchange—the very type of experience that volunteering abroad provides.

“Voluntourists are mostly winners in the privilege lottery, and they try to make up for their position of power by obsessively striving to even the scale. They wish to give things away—time, energy, clothes, technology—to make up for the amount they have,” she writes. “While the urge to help others have what you enjoy is understandable, how voluntourists attempt to pursue their goal is problematic.”

The writer and antiques dealer (Biddle lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, where she co-owns Quittner Antiques with her husband) sat down with Verge to discuss the ethics and future of the voluntourism industry.

Verge: You started writing Ours to Explore six years ago. Since then, we’ve started seeing more discussion about the colonial nature of travel, alongside the rise of social justice in tourism. How do you think this has affected conversations about voluntourism?

For a long time, the initial roadblock to critiquing voluntourism was people not being willing to recognize the privilege they hold, and not being willing to recognize whiteness—especially when white people enter predominantly non-white communities that are not their own. And not every voluntourist is white, but they do make up the vast majority of the millions who [volunteer abroad].

Now, there’s a lot of people who are more interested in travelling in a way that’s truly respectful and who are much more open to critiquing the ways they've travelled before. People have become a lot more comfortable recognizing their privilege where they have it, which is a huge step forward in having a conversation about voluntourism.

It’s midway through 2021 and everyone is still talking about the future of tourism and how the “great pause” is an opportunity to re-evaluate and do things better. Do you think that voluntourism will look any different post-pandemic?

There's this sort of misconception that because mass tourism "stopped"—which it never really did—that voluntourism stopped. Really, it just went more underground. Sure, providers couldn’t do their typical groups of 30 people going to Tanzania, but a lot of providers continued selling trips. You’ll even find blog posts from travellers who were going to places that were COVID hotspots and writing about how great it was to not have to wear a mask.

Expecting change—simply because we’ve had time to reflect—is extremely optimistic. If change is going to happen, it’s going to be [because of] individuals in positions of power at specific provider organizations—not because there’s a massive outcry from travellers for voluntourism to stop.

One testament to how individuals in a position of power can change an industry is World Challenge. They’re a for-profit trip provider owned by a major travel conglomerate [Travelopia]. Just a few years ago, they were still doing trips to orphanages. Now, they’ve completely changed their model to not emphasize any type of volunteering.

Do you think that there are any ways to sustainably volunteer abroad?

I think you need to be highly skilled in what you're doing. If you're going to go teach, be a teacher, and go through an exchange-focused program, where you learn from the people you’re working alongside (keyword being: “alongside”) while they learn from you.

If you are going to be doing medical work, you need to be a doctor. Every human being on this planet deserves access to high-quality medical care. There are instances right now in which that care is best delivered by someone from outside [a host] community—[but] that should never be a long-term solution.

Often, the ways people are most useful are really unsexy. Accountants can be hugely helpful for nonprofits to get their books in order and get things together so they can fundraise effectively. But I haven’t heard many accountants say that they want to be an accountant in another country; they say they want to go build a building.

"Often, the ways people are most useful are really unsexy. Accountants, for example, can be hugely helpful for nonprofits to get their books in order."

The impulse to volunteer in someone else's community is fascinating because it’s rarely matched with an impulse to volunteer in your own community. People like voluntourism because it’s easy: You check in, you check out, you’re done. The hour that I stand at the food pantry in my town every week is the hardest volunteer gig I've ever had, because I'm showing up every week.

I challenge people that if they are thinking they want to [volunteer abroad], they should really get involved with a local organization first and make a long-term commitment to that.

An argument exists that the power of voluntourism isn’t the work that volunteers do while they’re overseas—their value lies in the work they do in advocacy and fundraising once they return home. What do you think the role of voluntourists is when it comes to fundraising?

A huge aspect of how orphanages exist is that they accumulate a global network of former volunteers who then raise money and sponsor kids. There are absolutely exceptions, but the vast majority of organizations I've seen, that financially benefit from volunteers, are doing things that I consider unethical—like orphanages allowing people without proper training or background checks to engage with children.

There’s this “victim ideology.” There’s this idea that because a community is impoverished, they must all be good actors who are being put upon. But there are a lot of really bad actors. There are a lot of people who are willing to exploit people in their own communities to make a buck. That’s true in any community, and it’s certainly not something that communities in need are exempt from.

"The vast majority of people who take part in voluntourism have really good intentions. I would like to preserve that and just pivot in another direction."

I was speaking with a non-profit leader who runs an organization and she asked about donor trips, where donors are taken to see what they’ve helped fundraised for, and to encourage them to donate more. And, on one hand, I get it. If I were writing a cheque for $20,000, I would probably have an urge to see things on the ground. But there’s a difference between seeing that money’s being used in the right way and the community being trotted out to put on a show.

For example, in Haiti, there’s a program where malnourished kids are given nutritionally rich supplements by UNICEF. I took a trip there in 2016 and they didn’t take us to see malnourished kids. They showed us around the supplement factory instead, and we met people who are professionals in their field and learned about the work they do. So, it’s possible to engage with non-profits in a respectful way.

What’s next—for both you, and for voluntourism?

Ours to Explore
tells the stories of lots of individuals. But the book really isn't about individuals and it's not about calling people out or demonizing individual actors. The vast majority of people who take part in voluntourism—including those who run trips—are people with really good intentions and they really want to create change. I would like to preserve that and just pivot in another direction and hope the book can call people in who are willing to make that pivot.

I have no intention of building a career on being an expert in voluntourism. There are enough people who look like me speaking loudly already. I hope this book will be read—and I hope people will read something else afterwards about voluntourism by someone who doesn't look like me.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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