WASSERMAN: ‘Voluntourism’ must emphasize aid rather than travel

Opinions Column: A Healthy Dose of Justice

Before I started college, I only thought about the world outside the United States in pretty limited contexts. I was an active member of my high school’s Model United Nations club, but any debate or discourse that I engaged in about low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) had no awareness of global justice or the dynamics of institutional powers. As is the case with many a white college liberal, upon learning at the university level of international relations, global health, neoliberalism and development, I quickly became aggrieved over the plight of populations I had never known or felt a kinship towards. 

In the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I participated in an “international service learning” program in Thailand, focused on community health promotion in the rural area outside of Bangkok. In working with the Ministry of Health, myself and other student volunteers checked the glucose levels of people with diabetes, helped bandaged the bedsores of people who had been paralyzed in motor vehicle accidents and socialized with the families of patients across the community. Under Thailand’s system of universal health coverage, these primary health services bore no out-of-pocket cost, but often families expressed their gratitude through payment of whatever goods they had to us volunteers, such as with mangoes, rice and other foods. Through these community health experiences, the reality of power imbalance, vulnerability and health inequity became all too apparent in my mind, and I began to feel deeply uncomfortable with what I was doing in Thailand. For any interested reader, these thoughts were recorded in a blog that I kept while abroad, which Rutgers still features as an advertisement for this specific study abroad program on the global website.

On the plane to Thailand, I started reading a book by sociologist Judith Lasker called “Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering,” which exposed me to the portmanteau-term “voluntourism” for the first time. Voluntourism is defined as “tourism in which travelers do voluntary work to help communities or the environment in the places they are visiting.” Lasker’s main argument, borrowed from Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, is that underdeveloped countries have become the playgrounds of privileged individuals looking to atone for global injustice by “escaping the vacuity of modernity and globalization.” Subconsciously, this is what brought me to Thailand, in a juxtaposition of an authentic desire to reduce injustice, with a vanity hell-bent on showing my own sophistication and superiority to my peers. Cole describes the system of organizations that bring Westerners to LMICs to address issues of poverty, health, gender, education and the environment as the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” The White Savior Industrial Complex predicates itself upon a revolving door of young, enthusiastic, wealthy volunteers who stay for a few weeks or months, sometimes less, and convinces themselves that they make an impact despite evidence that suggests a long-term stay is required for volunteers to be effective in reaching a goal.

The ethical quandaries while abroad are everywhere, where your impact is unavoidable despite your best attempts at adherence to cultural norms. You do not know the language? Monopolize the time of a translator in an already human resource-scarce setting, and definitely forgo the tedious standards of conversational informed consent before you take a selfie with that emaciated child in a hospital bed for your Instagram. Oftentimes, voluntourism exists in a vacuum from external power relations, where the assistance to the vulnerable does nothing to alleviate the systemic violence that led to their poverty or subjugation in the first place. In their ethnographic book “Righteous Dopefiend,” anthropologists Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg state, “The term 'culture' is often applied sloppily across power gradients, inadvertently masking structures of inequality and politically imposed physical suffering.” Should international volunteer organizations approach local realities like ethnographers, with a cultural relativistic stance that withholds moral judgment? Or does global justice require an application of normative ethics? What capacity does the industry of voluntourism have to make that application? In Thailand, I felt that my stay was far too short to make any lasting difference and that my American identity imposed a power dynamic that made it difficult to give more than I was receiving.

In international aid, our goals should be the empowerment and creation of opportunity for the vulnerable, with our own needs, motives and goals put aside at the border. If you are considering a short-term volunteer program, also dare to consider what it does to the individuals and communities that you helped once you remove that help. If voluntourism is to become ethical, the tourism must be eliminated, with a reorientation towards the needs of the community instead of the vanity of the volunteers that they will receive.

Jake Wasserman is a Bloustein School senior majoring in public health with a minor in cognitive science. His column, “A Healthy Dose of Justice” runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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