We’ve all seen it. A family friend crafts a dramatically lengthy Facebook post, remarking on the terrible state of an orphaned child in Nicaragua, Nigeria, Guatemala, or somewhere else cryptic and distant. This person will often begin with a platitude along the lines of “I am so lucky to have the opportunity to…” or “This is my calling.” Then, to cap off their sudden altruism, the punchline. “Please click the button below to help fund my spring break trip and save children’s lives!”
This is the essence of voluntourism. Defined as “doing meaningful volunteer work while also participating in tourism,” it’s a euphemism for a vacation disguised as charity. These sorts of trips are rapidly growing in popularity (who knew building schools could be so fun?), yet the world doesn’t seem to be in any better shape than it was last spring break. This shouldn’t be surprising—nobody, especially a college student, can save the world in seven days.
To be clear, my gripes are not with the act of volunteering, nor even with the idea of voluntourism. However, I believe that these should be taken at face value, and not glossed over with a false aura of altruism that is simply unobtainable. A trip to Central America costs well over $1000. If a group of 20 students used that money to purchase ibuprofen, bandages, or water bottles—well, that’s a lot of people who could be helped.
Of course, that’s not what happens. I too have participated in a voluntourism trip—I spent one week in Nicaragua doing “medical clinic work.” The reality is I wanted to travel to a country that I had never been to, and would not likely have the chance to visit again. Those families that I met were in no better a place after I left than they were when I arrived.
I understand that traveling is exciting, and I made some wonderful college memories on that seven-day adventure traipsing through Central America. However, that trip was more for me than it was for the families and children I was supposed to be helping. I think it’s important to be honest about the true benefactor of that $1000. So, for all of my peers begging for charity funds via Facebook, enough is enough. Altruism and adventure are not synonymous so please don’t treat them as such.