Volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’ as it is more commonly known, comprises the practice of travelling abroad to undertake voluntary work in humanitarian and development projects. For young people in the global North, and particularly young White women, it has become an increasingly popular way to travel, as it combines international adventure with Generation Z’s much-discussed aspirations to make the world a better place.
Indeed, whether it be refurbishing a school library during a trip to The Gambia (a project that I, the author of this blog was personally involved in), gap-year excursions to build an outdoor activity camp in Nepal, or a work placement teaching English in East Africa, venturing overseas to volunteer features on the itinerary of many travellers today. Whilst the growth of voluntourism may appear beneficial for countries which rely on international aid and development support, new research by Bandyopadhyay and Patil published in Tourism Geographies (Volume 19, Issue 4) uses postcolonial theory to scrutinise the meanings and practices of voluntourism, laying bare their gendered, racialised logics. In so doing, they also shed new light on why voluntourist projects are particularly popular among young, White women.
Tourism has long been implicated in reinforcing colonial understandings of the global South. The article references how much travel writing in the 19th century cultivated an exoticized image of India, as many colonizers who travelled to the subcontinent documented their experiences in writing to be avidly consumed back in Europe. This echoes the contemporary way that voluntourists capture images of people of colour on their tours. These images frequently draw on themes of poverty, destitution and inequality and are shared via social media. As such, understandings of the global South as primitive and barbaric are reified online. This has recently provoked push-back from young people of colour from the global South, who have created their own Instagram accounts such as ‘@NoWhiteSaviours’, which lays bare the problematic nature of these optics.
The researchers also consider the legacy of ‘kinship politics’ which is evident in the dynamics of voluntourism. This encompasses the idea that it was the moral responsibility of actors in the global North to ‘parent’ underdeveloped countries in the global South, nursing them to a state of civilization and maturity by imposing their own values, education and institutions. Kinship politics provided White women, who have historically been excluded from other imperial activities, a project of their own, as they took it upon themselves to ‘save’ women in the global South. This has important implications for explaining why White women may be particularly drawn to voluntourism in the modern day, as they are spurred by White, Western feminist sentiments to ‘empower’ these women, whether they like it or not.
Exploring the numerous ways that colonial meanings and practices penetrate the mechanisms of voluntourism, the researchers offer a valuable conclusion: that this intersection of international development and tourism needs to reflexively contextualise itself within the history of colonial thought and imperialism. As such, voluntourists- myself included, as a young White feminist who embarked to The Gambia at 16- should reflect on how their adventure, however well-intended, in fact reinforced ideas about the global South which sustain its subjugation to the global North. It is only when all actors are treated as absolute equals, that global equality will truly be attainable.
Bandyopadhyay, R. and Patil, V. 2017. ‘The White woman’s burden’- the racialized, gendered politics of volunteer tourism. Tourism Geographies. 19(4). 644-657. DOI: 10.1080/14616688.2017.1298150.