20 Years From Now.
Updated: Mar 3
It is estimated that over 10 million people will go aboard each year and seek to enhance their travels through altruism. This ideal mixture of adventure and service has been packaged and sold to eager travellers as volunteer travel; otherwise known as ‘voluntourism’.
Countless pictures are posted to social media, of young jet setters cuddling and playing with foreign children. Accompanied, are captions that either describe the disparity and sadness they feel for those they are engaging with or the gratitude they are feeling towards their experience that encompasses so many ‘valuable’ life lessons for them.
Let’s be imaginative for a moment.
In 20 years time if we were to describe the same narrative of volunteer travel, how would these choices and practices resonate with us?
Would we be proud? Would we still be congratulating and praising people for embarking on these ‘altruistic journeys’? Or will this narrative become a peculiar concept like so many other choices from our historical past have continually become? Will we be using words such as ‘altruistic’? Or will we be using descriptive terms related to ideas such as ‘self-righteousness’, ‘colonial conquest’ and even ‘slavery’?
What may seem dramatic in my description of possible foreseen predictions, should not neglect the urgency to ask ourselves why we feel so entitled to continue to choose to actively engage in these acts of detriments; all in the name of ‘good will’ as our excuse.
This is not a question of what has brought us to the point within society where it has allowed a person’s privilege to benefit from another’s disadvantages. White colonial history helps clearly explain what has shaped and continues to shape our current actions and attitudes enough. The question now is, why do we still feel as though it is acceptable to continue to exploit people in such a way? Why do we continue to use self-gratification as such a powerful driving force to take advantage of ‘vulnerable’ people?
History has been written, and people are aware of colonial influence and the tragic, cruel impact it has had on others. Awareness has been sought for this very conversation, and this narrative has been challenged before. Yet, people still push it aside and make excuses for their actions. People still want to believe that what they are doing is inherently good and that they are making a positive impact.
But with this acknowledgement of denial, we need to start asking ourselves, why we are so stubborn in accepting the truth?
The only answer- is because it makes us feel good. Self-gratification trumps everything. Privilege conquers all, and it continues to exploit those who do not have the ability to achieve the same.
Our excuses come in all shapes, sizes and loaded patronising terms. Conversations surrounding ‘vulnerable’ communities needing 'help' are common descriptors that surface when having these discussions. The idea that people within these communities are so ‘happy’ considering they have ‘nothing’, is something that continually arises during conversations relating to development.
These statements are usually shared through a delivery that positions the story teller as though they know better than those they are talking about. And the tone that accompanies such statements are always waiting for a response that expects us to sympathise with the messenger- as if, ‘how sweet, these poor people don’t know any better’.
But the problem is, we don’t know any better.
Or let us re-phrase that, we don’t want to know any better.
By casting our unsolicited and often loaded opinions and judgments on these communities, we are expressing a lot more than just a simple and innocent ‘observation’. Through the common suggestion that these people have ‘nothing’, we are determining and defining these communities’ worth.
But, who gets to define, judge and determine what ‘nothing’ really means?
How has it become that we have allowed ourselves these judgements? Through these simple one-liners and observations, we are doing a lot more damage than we know; we are creating sub-conscious hierarchal notions. And, through such notions and judgments, we are placing the ‘vulnerable’ beneath us; allowing us to judge and categorise their contrasting ways of life.
When we evaluate these viewpoints and these common observations, it can be found that such a viewpoint stems from nothing more than the basis and foundations of colonialist views and values.
Through these limited, yet loaded discussions, we are continuing the systematic oppression of these communities. We are continuing to value their ways of life as something lesser than ours, and in doing so, we pity them through these conversations and actions.
Something that is often forgotten amongst these discussions, and one, that at the very core, is the most important to remember- is that individuals who are the subject of our judgement have not asked for these observations, and they are certainly not asking for our pity. Privilege continues to blind those who maintain it, and lead the non-consensual consensus on any population of people that are not similar to their own.
When discussing topics such as volunteer travel and development, it’s important to acknowledge that our initial ‘good’ intentions, do not make us bad people.
We should encourage people who have a desire to help others to follow these passions. But more importantly, what needs to be encouraged, is for people to pursue these passions more ethically and beneficially. As well as encourage those who engage in these discussions, to also participate constructively and positively.
The consistent harmful and degrading dialogue that comes from these conversations needs to be challenged and shifted, as it is something that can have just as much of an impact as our physical actions have and continue to do.
The next time a conversation arises, and you hear similar comments being thrown around- talk about it.
Challenge those who are continuing the suppression of others who live a different life from what we comfortably know. Consider the pictures that people are posting online with ‘poor’ foreign children and challenge the reasons behind these posts. Consider the real intentions and ask yourself whether their engagement was necessary, or whether they just wanted your likes and validation through praise. It's time we start to have a more in-depth conversation with people around these current destructive values and begin to challenge the ultimate motives.
Must must begin to view these travel experiences differently and view those engaging in such activities as the 'exploiter', rather than the 'hero'. As well as view those being exploited as such, rather than people who need to be 'saved'. Any action that benefits us, should not come at the expensive of another.
With privilege comes responsibility and accountability, and with such, requires action. It begins with us, and it needs to end with us.