27 February 2014

my thoughts on volunteer-tourism.

Recently, via one of our favorite blogs, Mama Congo, Michael and I found a critique on volunteer-tourism, which can be defined as any short-term volunteer experience in a developing country. These trips are usually frequented by teenagers and young adults and can include opportunities to see the country (tourism) as well as do volunteer work (build a school, spend time with children, do dental work, etc).

The author of the critique, Pippa Biddle, had some valid points to make about the downfalls of volunteer-tourism. I agree that these trips often don't include the cultural, language, and socio-economic preparation necessary. What is the local culture like? What are all of the factors affecting the poor and marginalized in this community? Am I even going to be able to speak with local people? (If not, then don't even go.)

In addition, the trips can perpetuate stereotypes of Americans/Westerners/white people swooping in to "save" people instead of allowing for an open and honest dialogue in which both groups of people can learn, grow, and benefit.

Of course, reading an article like this, Michael and I can't help but feel critiqued ourselves. The reason we are in Tanzania today is because of short-term trips like the one with which the author disagrees. I spent three weeks in rural Dominican Republic during the summer of 2005, doing just what I had no skill to do, which was dental work. I accompanied a Colombian dentist to remote parts of the island to clean the teeth of young and old alike, after a very brief day of training.

Michael spent the same amount of time in Swaziland in 2006, doing everything from accompanying those sick and dying of HIV/AIDS to spending time with hundreds of children at an orphan camp. Did Michael and I have the skills necessary to be there? Absolutely not. I will be the first to admit that. As an 18-year-old college student, what skills could we possibly have possessed? Not many. But does that mean we shouldn't go on these trips?

Not necessarily.

Our trips to the Dominican Republic and Swaziland weren't perfect. But unlike other trips I've heard about, they exposed us to the reality of local life. We weren't removed from the life of locals, like so many critics seem to imply. I spent time eating with the very poor. I learned from local advocates, who were researching and writing policy, meeting with government representatives, and dedicated to bettering their country. We spent time, on a daily basis, meditating on what we had seen, analyzing the impact our lives in the United States had on developing countries, and taking into consideration what we could do once we returned home.

In other words, the trip was not about, "How do we help these people?" It was about, "How do we learn from these people? How do we try, in a small and seemingly insignificant way, to understand their lives in a way that we could not do from the United States?" The trips need to carry the right attitude, the right presence. I agree with the critique that many of these trips don't carry that message.

Should people be spending thousands of dollars to travel overseas and go build a school? When locals could do it themselves for much less money, less impact on the environment, and on and on? No, I don't think so.

Heck, Michael and I just met Americans who we felt possessed incredibly uninformed and slightly offensive opinions of Tanzania after they had been here for a very short period of time. So believe me, I see the unfortunate stereotypes these trips can perpetuate.

For us, our experiences turned out to be more than that. For the next six years, inspired by our short insight into the Dominican Republic and Swaziland, Michael and I felt the pull to return to a simple life in a different culture on a full-time basis.

Even beyond our own personal story and experiences, I believe so deeply in people of all cultures living in a country and a culture that is not their own. And I don't think you need to be a doctor or an engineer to validate your presence.

I believe firmly and deeply in lifting people out of poverty, whether that be financial, physical, or emotional poverty. In order to fight poverty, you do not have to be a doctor or engineer, as the critique seems to indicate. All you need to be is someone willing and able to encourage, empower, and support others. The author of the article argues that she doesn't want children in foreign countries to see her as a role model - she wants them to see locals as role models. I completely agree.

But how do we help the locals themselves? How do we encourage them, give them opportunities to be role models, place them in positions of authority and power so they can do all of the things they hope for and dream of? I think and I hope we do it by being cheerleaders. That's not just about providing the fundraising or possessing a Ph.D.

Michael and I are in no way under any delusion that we are here to "help" Tanzanians in our short time. That is why we work at and partner with local organizations - started by locals and run by locals - to see the amazing progress they have already made, learn from it, and contribute to it ourselves, based on our skill set, whatever that may be.

Above all, when people live in a culture that is not their own, become involved in the local community, and contribute in whatever way they can, I believe the act itself leads to peace.

Is volunteer-tourism all good? Definitely not. But there is a lot of good to be had, for those willing to be a cheerleader.


  1. Thank you much for this blog!
    I lived in Mbeya as a child. I´m a medical student from Denmark and four years ago to volunteer at a hospital in Arusha. For me the trip was about coming back to the country that I fell in love with 20 years ago, to help treating the patients, but even more to learn from the doctors and the people around me. It was a great experience and I learned so much. It became evident to me that the best way to help was to take a step back from all my own ideas about what they needed, and just listen to what they had to say.

    In general, I think many people from western countries go there with the idea that; ‘we’ have to teach them to become more like 'us', and that´s such a misconception. Going to other countries is all about taking a step back (from my point of view anyway)and learning how culture works and getting a better understanding about them. When I´m traveling I always learn a lot about my own culture, and it´s a great was to reflect on how you live your life back home. Because of that I don´t think the problem lies with voluntourism (as some people call it), but in the motives of volunteering. The different companies making these trips, can of course help in getting the volunteer to grasp the concept of culture and language, however I think it is up the the volunteer to take responsibility and an interest in the people and country they are visiting. If they did that voluntourism could be a great way of helping and learning about a different culture.
    I´m looking forward to an internship in one of the hospitals in Arusha in September 2014, I can´t wait to come back!

    1. Lykke, we're happy to hear from you! And we completely agree with you about taking a step back. It's easy to get caught up in our own world views and cultures without even realizing it. We find that traveling and spending time with people of other cultures usually reminds us how "American" we really are, even when we think we're not. Glad to have you back in Tanzania in September! Karibu sana!

  2. Way better read. I agree with you and Michael. Volunteerism is good when you are not doing it selfishly. When you are working and learning from the locals. When you are encouraging and advocating the work ALREADY BEING DONE. If we can go to a developing country and come back to the USA or our developed worlds, and better represent those places than the media does, or better than stereotypes do, then let voluntourism continue. I was in Malawi, and I enjoyed learning the language, sitting in homes with strangers, and learning from locals on ngos. I wrote MollytoMalawi.wordpress.com, Feb 2012-July 2012 while I was gone during those months, and since then, many have learned about WHAT, WHERE, WHO and HOW Malawi is. Malawi certainly is way more than media tells us, and I think we would never have had such stories if volunteers who have open hearts, minds and want to learn not "save," than we shall gain a lot. Thank you for your own post, well done.
    Where are you in Tanzania, and where are you serving? I wanna check out that country next!

    1. Molly, thank you so much for your kind words! We resonate most with your statement of supporting work that is already being done. So many times, we have seen NGOs start work without the support of locals. Later, they are surprised when the work fails or is not carried out after they are gone. These critiques are always good to remind us of our true mission and to keep us on track as well!

      We are currently living in Musoma but will move to Mwanza permanently next month. We couldn't be more excited! Karibu sana! You are welcome in Tanzania!

    2. Hi Ashley, thanks so much for your comments on my blog! I really loved what you were saying about being someone's cheerleader, and learning from the locals...I think it is such an important part of the exchange, but it is often overlooked. Development is disruptive and can seem intrusive, so sometimes it is the things like empowerment and personal growth which actually stick! And I would LOVE to come to Tanzania! You guys seem to be doing great work out there, keep it up!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.