Could local builders not do the work that 'voluntourists' carry out?Anotnix Wayfarer

It’s getting to that time of year again when everyone is looking towards summer to get them through the despair of exam season (at least most people are – as a prelimmer I can’t say I feel the same). Suddenly my emails are filling up with offers to ‘Volunteer with elephants for 10% off’ and ‘Help build a local school in Ghana’, while I hear numerous students talk excitedly about how they are going to teach English in developing countries.

Indeed, amongst university and gap year students, ‘voluntourism’ is becoming an increasingly popular addition to their travels. This seems harmless: surely teaching English to local children is a better way to spend your summer than drinking cheap vodka and listening to house music in Malia? Nonetheless, we need a more honest conversation about what these volunteers are truly contributing to these regions.

“We can have as many volunteers going to the continent as we like, but meaningful change will only occur if and when Western governments end their enforcement of their neoliberal agenda in Africa.”

This is not meant as an attack on volunteers. In most cases I am certain that they genuinely believe they're helping these communities. However, good intentions by themselves are never enough. To make a difference prospective volunteers either ought to have skills which would be of use to these communities, or volunteering schemes should do more to help them develop these skills before they go away. A good example is the OSCA programme, which offers fairly comprehensive training before students depart. Yet the sad truth is that this is a rare occurrence. More disappointingly, when people speak of their volunteering it’s striking how much they talk about their own spiritual gains from the experience. Cultural differences are rarely acknowledged, either. It’s not overly difficult to learn a bit of the language of the country’s volunteers visit, but you’re hard pressed to find people who actually do.

However, more often than not the issue is not with the volunteers but with the charities themselves. Many of them appear to be more business-orientated than focused on providing meaningful solutions to poverty, preferring to spend a disproportionately high level of their donations on photo-ops and advertising. Meanwhile, local people and their cultures are overwhelmingly excluded: volunteers with little or no construction experience are brought in to build houses which local builders could have done themselves. Citizens of these communities are presented as passive victims in need of support. Much greater efforts ought to be made to engage and include them in such schemes, as well as remaining respectful of local traditions, beliefs, and culture. They know a lot more about the issues they face than NGOs and volunteers, meaning the exclusion of locals only serves to hinder their community’s development.

The idea that struggling communities need Westerners to come and lift them out of poverty is a perpetuation of the centuries-old ‘White Man’s Burden’ myth, and furthers the perception of the West as the pinnacle of civilisation. In fact, not only do we need a serious conversation about what Western tourists are contributing to local communities, we need to think about what the West as a whole is contributing to these countries.

In the case of Africa, it’s hard to contemplate why the world’s richest continent in terms of natural resources has a life expectancy which is on average thirty years lower than in Western countries. As author and filmmaker Mallence Bart-Williams said in her Ted Talk, “the aid is not coming from the West to Africa, but from Africa to the Western world”. The truth is that the West overwhelmingly relies on developing countries for natural resources, and preventing the development of the continent is the best way Western countries can get the cheapest price for these goods.

We can have as many volunteers going to the continent as we like but meaningful change will only occur if and when Western governments end their enforcement of their neoliberal agenda in Africa. Although Cambridge is strongly Remain, greater attention ought to be shown to the EU’s darker side, for example heavily subsidised imports that hinder the development of local industry in regions of Africa. From ‘voluntourism’ to the EU, these are all signs that the West has failed to rid itself of its colonial mindset. Not only do we need to provide more effective volunteering schemes abroad, but pressure should be put on governments to change policies at home

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