I remember scanning my Facebook feed not only after graduating from college. Many of my friends had gone on to travel after graduation, and many had chosen to journey to distant locations on “voluntoursim” trips. Looking over pictures of friends (and people I didn’t know as well, either), I started to get a weird feeling in the put of my stomach as they posed with children from impoverished areas.
#blessed was a common theme, along with how rewarding their experiences had been abroad over the week or two they had been there. “How lucky that they’ve found WiFi so they can show us how their lives have been changed,” I couldn’t help but think sardonically. I hadn’t even known that I personally had a problem with this type of tourism until more and more of these photos popped up.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to volunteer, and on a superficial level, I have no problem with my peers traveling to other areas of the world in order to help others. In practice, it’s much more complicated than that. As Ian Birell states in this article for The Guardian,
Once again, clumsy attempts to do good end up harming communities we want to help. We have seen it with foreign aid, corrosive in so many countries by propping up despots, fostering corruption and destroying local enterprises. We have seen it with the dumping of cheap food and clothes, devastating industries and encouraging a dependency culture. And now we see it with ‘voluntourism,’ the fastest-growing sector of one of the fastest-growing industries on the planet.”
I have mixed emotions about this as a travel writer—someone who is supposed to encourage travel and the industry. But I can’t do that in good conscious when I know it is affecting so many lives negatively. I suppose I travel for, in some ways, a much more selfish reason: to make my own self a better person and more aware of what is going on in the world around me.
Helping others can be as simple as volunteering in your own community, or making a donation to a charity you believe in. It doesn’t have to involve thousands of dollars and Instagram pictures of how the lives you are affecting are better because of the trip you made. Chances are, in a lot of cases, they probably aren’t.
If you choose to travel and help others, I’m reminded of a shining example from a dear family friend, my “Aunt” Lucy. Living for years in Africa and Japan, Lucy devoted herself to teaching and truly getting to know the people she spent time with. This was before social media and before many of these places were deemed safe to go to.
For me, that is an example of helping others.