My Short Foray into Voluntourism

On July 19th 2015, I traveled to Istanbul, Turkey to teach at a 3-week summer camp for Syrian refugees. I specifically taught them computer skills, while others taught English, Arabic, Turkish, Art, and Quran (the Islamic holy book).

This travel and volunteer model is typically labeled “voluntourism,” and is a growing – yet problematic – movement. This piece is a reflection on my time in Istanbul and how the trip fits under the greater umbrella of voluntourism: what we did right, what we did wrong, and how the model can be ethically implemented.

Voluntourism has been cited by numerous articles as perpetuating the white savior complex, feeding first-world egos, a waste of money, ineffective, and even detrimental as it has crippled certain places into dependency. However, the crux of the matter is that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that these trips are for the community were traveling to help and that we’re making a big difference, when in reality, the difference is minimal (if not nonexistent) and the trip chiefly benefits ourselves.

the crux of the matter is that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that these trips are for the community were traveling to help

In my case, I was travelling with the Syrian Orphans organization, and the reason they were recruiting was because they needed teachers. Thus, we started out well-intentioned, and recruited for a need rather than a desire to just travel. Additionally, the organization’s stated mission is to help orphans, rather than indulge volunteers with an “experience.” Another strong advantage that comes from this is that we provided something beyond material goods; education would enrich these students’ lives forever.

Yet, after that we ran into some problematic issues. For one, absolutely 0 training was provided before we left on our trip, or even during. There was no oversight, no one checked our lesson plans, gave us feedback, or instructed us on how to deal with children who had experienced devastating traumas. For example, some volunteers told students to ask their parents for help with homework, neglecting the possibility that they may be orphans. Furthermore, several of the volunteers were still in high school or college: Assuming that these high school and college aged students’ first-world skills would suffice without proper training was not only incorrect, but also probably insulting to the students we taught. Although (thankfully), most of the volunteers had no outward signs of a western-savior complex, this very fact reinforced that idea.

Likewise, we were not taught the nuances of the greater problem (the refugee crisis in Turkey) or the culture we were in and how we, along with the refugee students, fit into that. Our work was not done in a vacuum and divorcing even a basic understanding of the holistic situation from our immediate work, was harmful to the greater cause that we sought to help.

We also had little to no information regarding our specific students before going in. No needs assessment was done, and the specifics of the students were a mystery, such as their educational, economic, health, and psychological status. We neglected the due diligence we should have done beforehand to ensure our work was most effective, and instead had to adapt as best (and as quickly) as we could.

Another negative was the obvious photo opp. At times, we were instructed to pose with refugee children or smile with boxes of donations. It is understandable to take photos to share a situation with the world – a picture can be a powerful tool for change. Yet this walks a thin line with selfies and blatant self-advertising, as well as exploitation (are you asking those children’s permission – or better yet, their guardian’s permission?). In general, if it feels uncomfortable, it’s probably wrong, and most volunteers on my trip felt the same way.

Then, at the end of 3 weeks one must ask, “What happens next?”

For students with abandonment problems, our departure was likely difficult and harmful. Voluntourism can be harmful because it doesn’t promote sustainable relationships, so it was encouraging to see that many volunteers took students’ contact information, adding them on facebook or whatsapp, and bonding in meaningful ways at the end of the trip.

More difficult is that the work involved in fighting an injustice doesn’t end after three weeks’ time (if only it were that easy!). Unfortunately though, the ideas of engaging in the cause, the organization, or advocacy in the US were absent from any post-trip conversation. This ties back to our lack of knowledge regarding the greater forces at work – mainly US foreign policy, Turkish refugee policy, and lack of financial aid to Turkey and/or refugees. Although these were the main contributors to the problem, we never focused on fighting them. (I would like to note though, that a few volunteers took the work home, bringing refugee made products to the US to fight the criminal wages women refugees make in Turkey.)

The hardest part to address though, is our impact. Nobody wants to be told their work may not had that much of an impact but in reality, a 3 week summer camp’s effects are probably negligible.  We also had no concrete way of determining our impact – nor did we ask for feedback from the students or community. What struck me the hardest at the end of our trip, was the realization that our positions could have been filled by women and men in the community who were probably looking for work with a decent wage, which arguably could have been more impactful in the long term.

Which brings me to my last point: the trip took up (i.e. wasted) a lot of money. There were about 15 volunteers, each of whom payed nearly $1,000 for a plane ticket. Personally, I had an additional roll of cash as spending money, which I ran through by the end of the trip, as I’m sure everyone else did. Yet this money could have been used to hire teachers from the same community for the summer camp, or be donated directly to refugees for supplies, food, clothing, etc. As Lexy Adams points out, the money spent on one medical global brigade trip could actually fund a full-time physician in the target community for a year.

All this isn’t to say there’s no benefit whatsoever to such “voluntourism.” There is always a benefit to cross-cultural interaction and travel; yet again, the greatest benefit is to the volunteer and rarely is there more than minimal benefit to the community being served.

the greatest benefit is to the volunteer and rarely is there more than minimal benefit to the community being served.

So the next time you consider a service trip, reflect on the points above to make sure you’re involved as ethically as possible, and then recognize that the trip is probably mostly a benefit to yourself. The least we can do when we engage with such trips is be honest about it – starting with being honest to ourselves.

This post was inspired by the articles “Voluntourism: More Harm than Good” and “7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip to Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on ‘Service Trips’”. I highly recommend both for further reading!

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