Doing Good (or Doing Bad?) – The Conundrum of Voluntourism

Written by: Hannah Dolhai

Doing good and feeling good are connected. But what if doing good for the reward of feeling good is at the expense of others’ disappointment? The widespread practice of voluntourism muddles the lines between activism for the benefit of long term relief to those in need, and personal, moral satisfaction.

During the summer of 2014, I participated in a voluntourism experience in which I travelled to Saint-Louis, Senegal and provided basic health care to Talibé children. These children who have been orphaned or sent out of their homes by their parents due to lack of financial resources are sent to a Daara, a Quranic school, in which they are often exploited for money by their teachers, Marabouts. The abuses subjected to the children are “dangers that no child should ever have to face” (Corinne Dufka), and have led to Human Rights Watch, the Platform for the Promotion of Protection of Human Rights along with Senegalese President Macky Sall taking drastic measures to prevent further exploitation and the shutting down of many Daara schools.

Often beaten, burned, sexually abused, and chained while in these schools, Talibé children are in constant need of proper medical attention, yet they are often deprived as many schools and incidents of abuse go unreported. Voluntourism programs ameliorate upon the basic human rights of accessible service to health, safety, and food that are not being met in Daara schools.

On the one hand, voluntourism has the potential to improve the lives of others by providing care and protection to those who are unable to obtain a proper quality of life. The charitable work creates intersections between hands-on labour, in which results can be seen and appreciated by both parties as well as the recognition of multiple cultures and ways of life. It is through this recognition and understanding that barriers between communication and action in relation to critical topics surrounding human rights can be knocked down and rebuilt with bridges.

The experience of staying with a Senegalese family while abroad enriched my view of the country’s culture and the practices of the predominant religion in the country, Islam. By not being able to fully remove myself when I came home, from the environment, customs, and culture that I was surrounded with during the day while volunteering, the empathy needed to bring action and education back home was acquired.

On the other hand, the sporadic nature of voluntourism, in which the flow of volunteers is constantly changing, provides those beings served with an unreliable network of protection and care. The attachment created on both sides is quickly severed when the volunteer’s trip has come to an end, and often it is easier for the volunteer to move on because the relationships formed can quickly be filled by privileges that the other lacks.

The tensions surrounding the positive or negative effects of voluntourism are deeply routed in the following question: At what point is action a product of caring about basic human rights versus cultural superiority? For many, Talibé practices are part of a larger religious context, while others argue that injustice should not be claimed in the name of religion.

While voluntourism provides short-term relief for individuals in the present, it is not immune to an inability to combat the systemic practices that have been in place for centuries. While change is a product of labour spread out over time, the real danger of voluntourism is not necessarily the practice of providing charitable work overseas but rather, how one continues their work at home once the hands-on experience has ended.

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