Voluntourism and Poverty Porn

Last year in a Cusco bar I had a rather heated discussion with an Irish traveller. He was fresh from Africa where he’d spent two weeks helping to build an orphanage; he was looking for volunteering opportunities, and seemed almost disappointed that the local Andean communities weren’t as impoverished as the ones he’d worked with in Africa.

I thought of him today, reading an Al Jazeera article: Cambodia’s Orphan Business. It’s hard to criticise people who want to help, and give of their time for somebody else, but the voluntourism concept makes me very uncomfortable. The article in question examines one part of this: unscrupulous agencies and orphanages that siphon the volunteer’s money towards their own enrichment and maintain the children in poverty in order to continue receiving funds.

But even in the absence of deliberate malpractice, I wonder: how much good are you really doing? Would the $3,000 you spend for a two-week stay in Kenya building a school not have been better spent employing local labour? Do Africans need a bunch of white kids spending a fortune to fly in and tile their roofs? Sure, the cultural exchange is hugely valuable and breeds tolerance and understanding, but could three months travelling – really travelling, learning the language and experiencing the culture – and spreading that $3,000 around the local economy be more effective, and less condescending?

So I argued with Irish Volunteer in Cusco. My questions didn’t go down well. He showed me a video of him with smiling children, insisted he’d made a difference. I felt like a bit of a bitch for cheapening it, for implying that this experience, hugely meaningful for him, wasn’t worth anything.

Because of course it was: for everyone involved. Relationships were formed, people on both sides no doubt felt good about what was happening. But I thought his comparison of the levels of poverty in Cusco and Africa were revealing: he asked us where he could find people who really needed his help, wasn’t sure he wanted to bother with the projects he’d seen. Wondered about going back to Africa. It felt, to me, like poverty porn.

I don’t know: the impulse is admirable. As Teju Cole’s White Saviour says:

The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.

Be nice, wouldn’t it?

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