The Voluntourism Assault: Stop Making This About Your Righteousness


Today’s post comes from Andrew Frankel, a former group leader for our partner organization Thinking Beyond Borders. After the Rhode Island native’s dream of winning the World Cup fell short, Andrew’s interests shifted slightly from Buddhist philosophical history to international development and education. He spent a few years in student travel, primarily with Thinking Beyond Borders, but then decided that snorkeling in South East Asia or trekking in Africa wasn’t nearly as exciting as working in remote Western China, where he currently lives, running a language and community development program at a minorities high school. We chose his piece today for the unique and challenging perspective he adds to the ongoing debate around Voluntourism. Andrew brings to light that these are not cut-and-dried questions; in order to empower the next generation of international impact makers, we must guide them as they learn, discover, and make mistakes organically—i.e., for themselves.

If you are interested or connected to the arenas of international development, travel, or service work, you are probably aware of the hackneyed mantras of volunteering abroad and “making a difference” and the subsequent fad of blogging about the evils of voluntourism—the opprobrious title applied by those who know better to shallow and selfish “service work.” But, Post-Volunteerist writers only scratch the surface of long-extant questions. They’ve elided the complexities of these issues, portrayed an oversimplified version of Good and Evil social engagement, and staked out an uncontestable moral high ground. Disagreeing with them means outing yourself as unworldly, callow, or—yes, trump card!—imperial.

Most problematic is not that these articles tirelessly present some ribbon-tied, bite-size anecdote: “I used to be young and ignorant and look how I’ve changed!” It is that they are so ridiculously sanctimonious. They don’t see that the High Road they insist on taking leads away from the students they’re hoping to reach.  

The site of our work project and home-stay in Ecuador
The site of our work project and home-stay in Ecuador

What they usually fail to mention is that the further immersed you get, the less certain your motivation and moral convictions become. And, the more doubt and prospect of futility wrack your mind. When I was 18, I couldn’t spell insolvency—never mind know what it was—but if I hadn’t traveled abroad prior to going to college, I never would have made it such a focus of my studies. Even after studying abroad and graduating, I was clueless. I went to Asia for the first time and trekked and studied and made local friends and volunteered. And even then, I was clueless. Then I got a graduate degree and taught for a student travel organization, working and studying across the world. And even then, I was clueless. And now I’ve been living in Asia for 18 months, am conversational in the local language, have good contacts, spend 60 hours a week providing a desired and necessary service, and even now, I am still virtually clueless.

Anti-Voluntourists cut off dialogue with students and short-circuit a learning process—as if the goals and means were perfectly obvious. My personal experience as a student travel leader has made me wary of this rhetoric. A preoccupation with controlling students’ behavior can manifest in a disdain for critical learning and resentment for students who don’t fit your criteria. New travelers should be allowed to forge their own path—just as we were—and not be written off because they are not yet doctors or engineers with highly applicable skill sets. Are we expecting full-grown Mohammad Yunuses to emerge from third period Algebra?

Pre-Sunrise at Angor Wat. Cliche? Yes. Awesome? Yes.
Pre-Sunrise at Angor Wat. Cliche? Yes. Awesome? Yes.

In the surfeit of articles deriding Voluntourism there is a dearth of better suggestions. It’s almost as if everyone wants the cargo-shorts wearing, camera-clickers to stay home—reminiscent of how we denigrate places for being touristy because other tourists remind us that we are too. Nothing shatters our pride faster than seeing another dweeb as obtrusive as we are!

But what’s the alternative—for these inquisitive young thinkers to stay home because they’re not yet qualified? (And if that happens, we won’t get them back when they are qualified). Is the only alternative to being a voluntourist simply not go at all? Wouldn’t we then complain that the youth are uncultured and ignorant on global issues? If you are never a Level 1 Tourist, you never move on to Level 2. How can anyone criticize these kids when we were there not too long ago and—let’s face it world savers—might still be there today.

A realistic alternative to the reflections of the Anti-Voluntourists is a critical approach that places further resources and responsibility in the hands of our students, and the best example of an organization that embodies this pedagogy is Thinking Beyond Borders. This innovative organization not only engages deeply with issues and approaches international development humbly, it understands that personal development takes time and you can only meet students where they are. A core principal of the program is that everyone comes willing to learn and in an environment of humility and inquiry, students are far more open to questioning and improving their own assumptions and habits. And still, we stood out in front of the Taj Mahal, making peace signs and taking pictures. Who didn’t their first time there?

Students are students. Love it or hate it - but it's a lot better for everyone to love it
Students are students. Love it or hate it – but it’s a lot better for everyone to love it

When we as leaders are more concerned with acknowledging faults than creating a dialogue about why there’s dissonance, we miss valuable opportunities for improvement—both for the students and ourselves. Whether you want to reference Plato’s Cave or Santideva’s description of the Boddhisattva ideal, the point is the same: seeing through the illusions isn’t the vocation of teachers or scholars—returning to the cave, reseeing the misperceptions, and working with others as we collectively retrace and redefine our awareness is the essence of education.

We all need to see more accurately the situations we encounter and our impact on our hosts. From a wider perspective, I agree with many of the observations and rebukes of the Anti-Voluntourists and would probably take them even further, but I can’t understand the usefulness of an opinion that impairs rather than incites students’ desire to participate in their own education. When applying our justifiably strict codes of conduct to working abroad, let’s start with ourselves and not those looking to us for leadership: It’s important to remember that we were once students and we still are—or at least we should be.


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