20 Years From Now.
Updated: Oct 20, 2019
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 off another’s disadvantages. White colonial history helps clearly explain what has shaped and continues to shape our current actions and attitudes enough. My 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 I have for this, is because it makes us feel good. Self-gratification wins everything. Privilege conquers all, and it continues to exploit those who do not have the ability to achieve the same, as a result and consequence of our selfish actions and choices.
Our excuses come in all shapes, sizes and loaded patronising terms. I was in a group discussion the other week, and conversations surrounding ‘vulnerable’ communities surfaced. This idea that people within these communities are so ‘happy’ considering they have ‘nothing’, is something I continually get faced with during conversations relating to development. These statements are always shared through a delivery that appears as though we know better than those we are talking about. And the tone given is 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 me re-phrase that, we don’t want to know any better. I thought these sayings were long gone; I assumed they died with other old fashioned and derogatory terms such as the use of ‘Third World and First World’. But I was wrong.
By casting our irrelevant and unsolicited opinions and judgments on these communities, we are expressing a lot more than just a simple and innocent ‘observation’. By suggesting these people have ‘nothing’, we are determining these communities’ worth. 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. Through such notions and judgments, we are placing the ‘vulnerable’ and ‘poor’ 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 and people. We are continuing to value their ways of life as something lesser than ours, and in doing so, we pity them through these discussions and actions. Something that is often forgotten amongst these discussions, and is something that needs to be continually reminded, is that these people who are the subject of our judgement, are not asking for our observations; and they are certainly not asking for our pity.
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 beneficially and positively. As well as encourage those who engage in these discussions, to also participate constructively and positively. Our dialogue 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.
So, 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 different from our own. 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 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'.
It's time we start to have a more in-depth conversation with people around these current destructive values and begin to challenge our motives. It’s important that we do not avoid these conversations as a result of feeling awkward. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable at times, it’s where growth and change really happen. These ‘awkward’ conversations are needed now more than ever, particularly when they involve the exploitation of another group of people.
With privilege comes responsibility and accountability, and with such, requires action. It begins with us, and it needs to end with us. It’s time we stop using our privilege to benefit ourselves especially when it comes at a cost to others.