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Op-Ed: 'Voluntourism' Is Really Not That Bad

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There's been a lot of recent debate on the subject of “voluntourism,” a term coined to describe week-long volunteer escapades to developing countries.  I myself have been on two of these so-called “voluntourist” trips and feel that it's my duty to defend their purpose.

There will always be people making disparaging, saracastic comments about the trips and how they can “completely change a woman’s Facebook profile picture,” but in my mind, a picture does not belittle the experience.  If anything, pictures are good; they share the experience on various platforms and encourage others to volunteer.  I highly doubt that anyone would spend thousands of dollars on a trip just to change their profile picture to one surrounded by poor children.

I have traveled to both Costa Rica and Jamaica on service trips for various purposes, namely to volunteer and to travel, hence “voluntourism.”  I see absolutely nothing wrong with this.  If I want to spend my money to travel abroad while volunteering and sightseeing, so be it.  Enjoying a vacation does not make the volunteer work mean any less.

This past spring break, I traveled to Petersfield, Jamaica with Amizade Global-Service Learning and stayed with a host family.  The director of the program in Jamaica, a man named “Mr. Brown,” repeatedly told us how grateful he was for our attendance.  When he was young, he explained that the town was named “Killersfield,” and that he “would have never dreamed about touching a white man.”  Village tourism, as he called it, helps their community grow.  It provides income for the host families and provides assistance to the limited teaching staff in Jamaica.

I did, in fact, change my profile picture upon returning to the U.S.; however, it was not one surrounded by children I did not know.  It was a picture of me and a young girl who was attached at my hip for the two days that I worked at her school.  She followed me around, making flower jewelry and crowns for me to wear.  She always had a smile on her face and I felt a connection with her.  I will always have that memory.

Bringing an iPhone or camera on a service trip is not a sin. From my experience, the children love taking pictures.  People spend money on service trips to explore themselves while helping others. Ultimately, the trip is about themselves, but this does not mean they are helping the community any less.  People travel to lose themselves and discover things they may not have known.  They want to remember the experience and be able to look back on it and share it with their family and friends.  I don’t see a problem with that.

The next time you hear someone call global voluntourism “narcissistic,” explain to them that #InstagrammingAfrica does not belittle the service; it simply spreads the word about volunteer trips that can change people’s lives (as well as their profile pictures).


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