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30th November 2014

The Most Arrogant of Lies: Voluntourism

Travelling the world in aid of volunteering whilst overlooking the needs of those close to us is a result of first-world boredom and the necessity of moral reassurance

Every once in a while, you may need a break from everyday life, whether it’s from work, university or general routine. In cases like these, a holiday would fit in perfectly—especially if it were to be justified by conscientious-seeming by-products.

Going on a volunteer trip sounds like the perfect package; it’s a break, it’ll look good on a CV, and there’s the fact that you might help some poor, disadvantaged kids on the other side of the world. However, the latter reason is starting to turn into more and more of a mere consequence of an anything-but-altruistic endeavour. While travelling to help those in need seems like a great idea—and indeed one can’t deny that it does do a lot of good—but this new kind of tourism needs close scrutiny and analysis.

As students at the University of Manchester, we naturally face two problems: 1) the financial hardships that come with being a student, and 2) the advantage of being in a university with so many volunteering and travel opportunities. These two aspects combined leave the average student in love with the idea of travelling to some exotic continent to help those who will probably never get the education or chances they have.

It also leaves them financially unable to do so because £2000 or £3000 is a bit of a fortune. Yet, this amount of money, especially when converted into local currency of the destination in question, could pay for professionals to do the services that students will attempt to provide, such as building a house or painting a school.

In this case, professionals would include manual labourers who leave their houses every morning hoping that someone will hire them if even for a day. Ironically, these labourers are just as unfortunate as the group the volunteers usually aim to help.

In fact, it seems extremely arrogant that we assume that as first-world citizens we are skilled at the jobs they have practiced their whole lives. A university student may be knowledgeable in all sorts of areas but what does a first year law student know about planting a garden in the middle of Nepal?

The issue entices two huge economic rebounds: it’s a waste of money for an indirect implementation of an otherwise good cause and it establishes the condescending robbing of unemployed citizens of potential, and long-awaited, job opportunities.

Aside from the issue of potentially harming the destination country, one must also looks at where the volunteers themselves come from. Take Manchester—a city of all types of social classes and living situations. In fact, homeless men and women line our very own Oxford Road.

Speaking from experience, it seems that the importance of helping them is dimming in the light of travelling to help others who may be equally less fortunate. By travelling hours and hours to reach a different continent, it is easy to overlook the common cry for help in our very own city.

Volunteering here, within a very small radius, can even come in all sorts of shapes and forms; it could be through helping the homeless, volunteering at orphanages or nursing homes, working with disabled children. There are many, many more opportunities. In the long run, these seemingly smaller acts of kindness may make a much bigger change than travelling to plant a garden or take children to a beach.

There are two equally important misfortunes that may result from attempting to aid the targets of the volunteer project, which are often children. First of all, spending time with these kids will naturally expose them to a type of lifestyle that they will probably never attain.

Of course, a volunteer will never purposely show off but, naturally, the kids will inevitably notice all the things they’ll never have; fluency in English, especially if you speak their language as well, nice clothes, or—without the slightest hint of irony—the liberty to travel abroad. Volunteers may cause problems or pains that did not even exist in the first place.

Secondly, one vital aspect of volunteering, especially when it is so personal and direct, is consistency. A once in a lifetime opportunity may sound alluring, but by definition, that itself is the problem; visiting these kids and growing close to them cannot cease to be once in a lifetime.

These kids may become too attached to the people that visit or to the fun that they bring with them. While schools or societies that plan these trips often plan to create long-term projects, chances are the volunteers themselves will never interact with the same group of kids again, tearing away one of the fundamental goals of volunteering.

Volunteering anywhere and for any cause is without argument a great way to attempt to make this huge world a better place. However, we must remember that what seems like a great opportunity may actually do way more harm than good.

While spending time and money on helping kids in third-world countries may be a worthwhile endeavour, we must first stop and check that it is not just a result of the boredom of first-world citizens seeking moral reassurance.

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