Messiah Motives: the madness of the mzungu voluntourist

Me teaching an English Language class in Arugam Bay, November 2014

Knowing that I have been travelling in South East Asia over the last three years and am currently in East Africa, an ex-colleague from Jersey, Channel Islands, was in touch recently to ask for my recommendations for a young person she knew who was looking for a gap-year volunteering opportunity. Good intentions were behind all of this, no doubt. I couldn’t respond with my actual thoughts on the matter for fear of offending both parties, so I chose to let the message go unanswered.

I am back in East Africa to visit my mum and step father who have been based in Tanzania on and off for the last four years. I am here as a tourist only. I wouldn’t have it any other way. When we go out for meals – infrequently as this means being foist into the throng of an almost exclusively wzungu (white) crowd – we see a visible increase in the number of very young, white Europeans, compared to when we first were here to look.

No doubt these groups are largely composed of gifted, privileged, relatively wealthy young people, who are bravely stepping out into a remote reach of the planet with the very best of intentions. But what did they come here to do? What are they actually doing versus what they think they are doing? Whatever it is, will their outcomes match their aspirations?

As Pippa Biddle notes in her blog post, The Problem with Little White Girls and Boys: Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist, “After six years of working in and traveling through a number of different countries where white people are in the numerical minority, I’ve come to realise that there is one place being white is not only a hindrance, but negative –  most of the developing world.”

Dorinda Elliot eloquently voices her concerns about the role she and other volunteers played reflecting on a ‘disaster relief’ house-building trip to Haiti: “I learn much more valuable lessons on my trip to Haiti than how to handle a hammer or sift gravel. I learn the surprising amount of harm that can be done with the very best of intentions.” (Read Elliot’s article in Condé Nast.)

Katrina Beitz confronts her privilege and impulse to ‘save the world’ in a thoughtful discussion on her ambition to volunteer abroad and ‘help’; after a few years studying ‘Development’ at university, she decides not to go to Africa. She makes a conscious choice to stay in America where she may do more actual good.

In White Messiah Complex John Allen Gay quotes Al Jezeera America columnist Rafia Zakaria who characterises the central issue elegantly, “The problem with voluntourism is the singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs.”

In the Adventist Review Online, Heather Ruiz probes the ideological issues that emerge from her voluntourist experience, “it is necessary for collegiate volunteers to re-prioritise and re-evaluate our approach to aid so that we use our resources to empower countries to develop themselves according to their own standards and not continue to hinder them with our own.” 

What’s more, the knife cuts both ways. In To Hell with Good Intentions Ivan Illch addresses  “American dogooders” volunteering in Latin America. He goes as far as to suggest that in addition to the target communities not being assisted in any real way, the volunteers in their self-deluded ignorance are actually doing harm to themselves: “You are profoundly damaging yourselves when you define something that you want to do as “good,” a “sacrifice” and “help.”” This is self-delusion par excellence.

In a hugely resonant article in an age of social media, Lauren Kascak writes an insightful treatment of the problems of the voluntourists’ photo souvenir in #InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism. Making apt reference to the Onion’s satirical 6-Day Visit to Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture she concludes, “In the end, the Africa we voluntourists photograph isn’t a real place at all. It is an imaginary geography whose landscapes are forged by colonialism, as well as a good deal of narcissism.”

This narcissism is reflected in voluntourits’ delusions of grandeur. Teju Cole in The White-Saviour Industrial Complex notes specifically of Africa, “One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism.”

In The Exploitative Selfishness of Volunteering Abroad Maya Wesby looks at the bottom line. As of 2015, the voluntourism industry is worth around US$173 billion annually. Emerging out of the competition between non-profits, “voluntourism arose as a more palatable form of commercialisation, earning income for a business while maintaining the illusion of clean-cut charity work.” (Maya Wesby’s article first appeared in the Wilson Quarterly).

This year in Africa, trade has just overtaken aid. Until this point in time, the in-pouring of aid from largely American and West European sources has outweighed any trade agreements; an eyebrow-raising scenario for a continent rich in oil, gas, gold, minerals, a continent rich in wildlife, space, agricultural opportunities, and people. Now, for the first time in recent history, China, Korea, Vietnam and other mainly Asian companies are establishing trade agreements with African nations in greater volumes than any in-coming aid. Trade agreements that look nothing like ‘Fair Trade’ and everything like exploitation. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

I opened this article with an image of me teaching an English Language class to a small group of women in Sri Lanka. As it happens, I originally travelled to Sri Lanka to play a role for a non-governmental organisation there known as SevaLanka. My role was to promote their Islander Centre in Anuradhapura, drawing on my decade’s experience working in marketing and communications for the private sector in the UK. Shortly after arriving I realised that I had entered into the arrangement with over-inflated expectations of what I would be able to achieve and inaccurate ideas about whom I would be helping. In short, while benefitting the organisation, my work would not be positively impacting anyone or anything else. I left and made my way as a happy and delighted tourist in the island instead, under no illusion I was contributing anything special.

The picture above shows me four months on from that experience, having been discovered in Arugam Bay by a visiting charity worker. In November, pretty deep into the east’s ‘offseason’, I was one of the only tourists remaining in Arugam Bay from the summer so presented a rare opportunity for Artists Against Poverty who were attempting to deliver English tuition into the community and hadn’t yet succeeded in hosting anything for the women in the village who were asking for a forum specifically for themselves. This charity was responding to an expressed need, and I liked that. After a chat, I was invited to host regular English Language classes in Ulla’s community resource centre (maintained primarily to offer computer skills courses and English Language for younger scholars). I had an earlier career as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language to draw on, so I was adequately qualified (TEFAL) and experienced.

Despite my relative maturity (relative to what I am attacking as the stereotypical collage / university-aged volunteer) it quickly became clear in that particular teaching context that a) the women in my class were more interested in a cultural exchange, as indeed was I and b) we were all far more inclined to spend our time together not only practising English but also exercising, dancing, and keeping fit – a particular passion of mine and, yes, an old career (the ‘relative’ maturity should by this stage be shining through). Our classes soon morphed into English and exercise meets: we spent our time together dynamically, everyone getting something from the interaction.

Our gatherings were far more social than didactic at this point; a far happier arrangement all round. Genuinely, we were friends meeting and learning about each other and from each other and as soon as that flatter dynamic became predominant, I believe we were all far more at ease. I am still proud of the image above as it captures an extraordinary moment in my own experience: it is a picture that shamelessly represents my own pride. I don’t have one of the later gatherings which were all either in the round, all on our feet, or all on the floor in one pose or other.

So, I suppose my genuine response to the question my ex-colleague asked me: advise your young friend to think a little more deeply about her own motives. If it really is a burning desire to do some good, why not volunteer for an organisation that needs help locally? If the real desire is to travel, save up and go on holiday to one of the destinations you are dreaming about. There are mindful travel operators who seek to offer an element of cultural exchange, and who prioritise serving the communities they visit in addition to building their own profit.

Your tourist renminbi, yen, dollar, euro, ruble, shekel, and sterling will all go further than any of your best intentions probably can in many of your desired destinations. If none of the above quench the thirst of the eager young volunteer, perhaps the best but hardest advice may be patience; wait until you are older and have indispensable expertise which would be of unique value in any context. Then, if your precise talents are needed in Africa, in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, in America – anywhere at all – the value you are able to offer will be indisputable, and you may even be worth the carbon footprint it takes to get you there.


This blog provoked an interview on BBC Radio Jersey two days after it was published, on January 4th, 2017.

Categories Blog, On the road, Opinion EditorialTags , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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