Why Voluntourism Can Be a Complete Waste of Time and Money

One million Americans volunteer abroad every year. Are they helping anybody besides themselves?

Author Pippa Biddle in Tanzania. (Photo courtesy Pippa Biddle)

Aug 11, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Pippa Biddle runs three websites, is on the editorial board of The FBomb, and has been published by numerous outlets including The New York Times Online, GoGirl Finance, The Huffington Post, and Elite Daily.

The hair ties, hundreds of sparkly and metallic baubles, languished in big green duffel bags for the majority of my time in Tanzania. We handed out the pencils, rulers, and calculators we’d brought, but the hair ties stayed tucked away, out of sight and out of mind. Finally, on one of our last days there, we dug them out and repurposed them as brooches, bracelets, and chokers.

I was in Tanzania a few years ago as part of a trip organized by the private all-girls boarding school in Connecticut that I attended. Our group consisted of 15 students, most of whom were white, and a few teachers and chaperones. About $3,000 bought us a week at an orphanage, a few pickup soccer games, and a week-long safari.

Our mission at the Bethsaida Orphans’ Girls Secondary School was to build a library. But it turned out that we, a group of highly educated high school students, couldn’t deliver on this mission. We were so bad at the most basic construction work that, I found out later, the local men who were helping us had to secretly come back each night to undo our work and rebuild the structure. Our costs were covering not just one library but two—the one we attempted to construct and the one built in secret each night to replace it. Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost-effective for the orphanage to take our money to hire locals to do the work.

Perhaps even more embarrassing was my failure at the simple act of gift giving.

In the months leading up to our trip to Tanzania, we collected hundreds of items to bring with us as gifts for the girls at the orphanage. Most of them were related to school and hygiene, but we also collected many hairstyling products. I had worn a hair band on my wrist for as long as I could remember, so the idea of collecting them for others seemed logical. I always needed one, so why wouldn’t a girl in Africa need one too? Also, they were cute and fashionable.

It wasn’t until we arrived at the orphans’ school and saw the beautiful girls in their crisp uniforms that we realized how off track we had been. I hadn’t known (though I could have found out with a little Googling) that one of the most regimented and universal parts of the Tanzanian schoolgirl uniform is a closely cropped head. The girl’s hair is highly regulated by school officials, not the medium of expression that hair is in my culture. We were later told that the haircut is believed to increase productivity, encourage focus on studies, and promote personal hygiene.

I desperately wanted to connect with the young women I was working with, so I brought them a piece of myself. But that piece of myself didn’t match up with what they needed or were able to use. Sure, they appreciated it, but that shouldn’t be enough. If I, with all my resources, had taken just 20 minutes to research what Tanzanian schoolgirls wear, I would have been able to come up with a better idea.

This kind of voluntourist trip I was on has been criticized (not to mention satirized) quite a bit recently, and with good reason. The lesson I learned: If you are going to travel with the intention of supporting and bettering a community, do your research first. Don’t assume that the things that you value and enjoy are the same things young people in India or Nigeria value and enjoy.

There is, by and large, a huge gap between the income, education, and resources of those traveling to volunteer and those they are trying to help. As many as 1.1 million Americans volunteer abroad every year, according to a recent Washington University study, the overwhelming majority of whom are white and relatively wealthy. The places they are most interested in going are full of people who are neither.

This gap can only begin to be bridged if those who claim the title of volunteer—flying off to faraway lands to bring education, health care, clean water, or just a little kindness—humble themselves and accept that stepping off the plane should be the thousandth, not the first, step in their journeys. Before we can claim to educate others, we must educate ourselves. Those who travel, in buying into the experience both psychologically and financially, burden themselves with the duty of becoming as knowledgeable as possible about the social, economic, and political issues the communities they are going to visit are facing.

On our first day working in Tanzania, the workmen walked up to the site in sandals and sneakers with the soles peeling off. One man wore plastic bags tied around his feet. At the first opportunity, our trip leaders went into town and bought each man a new pair of boots. They were easy to find but too expensive for the average Tanzanian. The men accepted these gifts with enthusiasm and excitement. But when they didn’t put them on immediately, I was confused. I asked one of them why he wasn’t using his new shoes on the job. He didn’t want to get them dirty, he answered.

Another misfired attempt at helping. I couldn’t help laughing.