Saturday 17 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Pit Theatre, Barbican Eye on the World
Every year, thousands of young people take time out to have an adventure and try to make a difference by serving causes they hold dear. Volunteer holidays and ethical gap year projects are a staple feature of university life and of broadsheet travel supplements, and have become a rite of passage for ambitious young people with altruistic intent.
Yet this holiday humanitarianism is met with varying degrees of cynicism from many commentators: the tourists are often regarded as naïve, patronising or more interested in salving their own guilty Western consciences than genuinely helping people. Some even argue they are complicit in a new colonialism, which has been dubbed ‘the white tourist’s burden’. It has been claimed that volunteer tourism’s focus on small-scale projects like digging wells and building compost toilets may actually be responsible for setting low horizons and stymieing the development that is needed in poorer parts of the world.
On the other hand, a growing industry of ethical tour operators and NGOs talk up volunteer vacations both as a passport to global citizenship and as a meaningful contribution to development. Why not travel to make a change when the alternative seems to be to stay home and miss out on valuable life experience?
Is volunteer tourism driven as much by a quest for adventure and personal growth as it is by altruism? And if so, is that a problem? If volunteers are making a difference, do their motives really matter? Conversely, if many of the projects ‘voluntourists’ take part in may ultimately do little to help those they are intended to, where’s the virtue in altruistic intent? So are volunteer tourists simply transposing contemporary Western values about sustainability, the virtues of small scale cottage industries and conservationism on the developing desperate for real development and growth? Or do we need to stop being cynical about passionate and idealistic young people with a genuine desire to cure the world’s ills?
reader in geography of tourism, Canterbury Christ Church University; co-author, Volunteer Tourism: the lifestyle politics of international development
professor of responsible tourism, Manchester Metropolitan University
research fellow, Overseas Development Institute
director of tourism, St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London; co-author, Volunteer Tourism: the lifestyle politics of international development
An edited extract from Volunteer Tourism: The Lifestyle Politics of International DevelopmentJim Butcher and Pete Smith, spiked, 19 June 2015
Higgs is on the fence about whether the rise in popularity ofCarrie Kahn, National Public Radio, 31 July 2014
Volunteering abroad to build schools or dig wells might make people feel good about themselves - but it can be detrimental to those who are supposed to be helped.Daniela Papi, BBC News, 1 May 2013
Do-gooders on vacation call it voluntourism. But is it doing anyone any good?J.B. MacKinnon, UTNE, 1 December 2009
Sure, there are some projects that will not get done without volunteers – but you still need to ask why you are needed, and whether the work would not be better done by a paid local person. Maybe the best contribution you could make would be to help pay that person.Kate Simpson, Wanderlust, 1 July 2007
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