The Problem With Little White Girls (and Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist

White people aren’t told that the color of their skin is a problem very often. We sail through police check points, don’t garner sideways glances in affluent neighborhoods, and are generally understood to be predispositioned for success based on a physical characteristic (the color of our skin) we have little control over beyond sunscreen and tanning oil.

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 realize that there is one place being white is not only a hindrance, but negative –  most of the developing world.

Removing rocks from buckets of beans in Tanzania.

Removing rocks from buckets of beans in Tanzania.

In high school, I travelled to Tanzania as part of a school trip. There were 14 white girls, 1 black girl who, to her frustration, was called white by almost everyone we met in Tanzania, and a few teachers/chaperones. $3000 bought us a week at an orphanage, a half built library, and a few pickup soccer games, followed by a week long safari.

Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.

Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.

Tying friendship bracelets during my first trip to the Dominican Republic in 2009.

Tying friendship bracelets during my first trip to the Dominican Republic in 2009.

That same summer, I started working in the Dominican Republic at a summer camp I helped organize for HIV+ children. Within days, it was obvious that my rudimentary Spanish  set me so far apart from the local Dominican staff that I might as well have been an alien. Try caring for children who have a serious medical condition, and are not inclined to listen, in a language that you barely speak. It isn’t easy. Now, 6 years later, I am much better at spanish and am still highly involved with the camp programing, fundraising, and leadership. However, I have stopped attending having finally accepting that my presence is not the godsend I was coached by non-profits, documentaries, and service programs to believe it would be.

You see, the work we were doing in both the DR and Tanzania was good. The orphanage needed a library so that they could be accredited to a higher level as a school, and the camp in the DR needed funding and supplies so that it could provide HIV+ children with programs integral to their mental and physical health. It wasn’t the work that was bad. It was me being there.

It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be.

I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries. I am a 5′ 4″ white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying powerpoint) to a few thousand people and not much else.

Some might say that that’s enough. That as long as I go to X country with an open mind and a good heart I’ll leave at least one child so uplifted and emboldened by my short stay that they will, for years, think of me every morning.

I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning.

After my first trip to the Dominican Republic, I pledged to myself that we would, one day, have a camp run and executed by Dominicans. Now, about seven years later, the camp director, program leaders and all but a handful of counselors are Dominican. Each year we bring in a few Peace Corps Volunteers and highly-skilled volunteers from the USA who add value to our program, but they are not the ones in charge. I think we’re finally doing aid right, and I’m not there.

Before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful. If yes, awesome. If not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip. Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the “white savior” complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches. Be smart about traveling and strive to be informed and culturally aware. It’s only through an understanding of the problems communities are facing, and the continued development of skills within that community, that long-term solutions will be created.

Further Reading: 2+ Million Views Later – That Time The Internet Broke Me

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  1. Wow, this is one self-serving naive piece of writing. How good of you to come to the realization you can’t lay brick. Obviously you and your privileged pals can’t meaningfully impact the lives of underprivileged people without economic hope during 1-2 weeks of a summer vacation. Bravo.

    1. Your comment was unesscary, I think we can all learn something from you what you wrote thanks pippa

    2. It is exactly NOT that! She is saying that we should not be naive and ignorant about it and think of white people as the “saviours” of Africa and and and. Did you read the article? I think you missed her point. It is very brave. I have never seen a white person own up to what it means to be white before. Thank you to the author for starting the process of grappling with this subject!

    3. Are you just a troll? Or are you really so stupid that you missed every salient point? (not rhetorical. I’m actually wondering.)

  2. Thank you. My Mother came from the Philippines and her family is still there. They are a predominantly Catholic country, and I find it odd that people “help” by bringing Christianity. It is no more that trumping one brand of religion over the other. It is no more than bragging one’s culture is better than another. They were hit by a nasty storm a year ago, and “helping” and “doing God’s work” was handing out Bibles. I always am reminded of the story about how Americans wanted to fix their diets and shipped in cow’s milk to people who are mostly lactose intolerant in an area that cannot sustain or keep cattle. Goat’s milk is what is common there, and these helpful people didn’t like the taste of it and deemed it unworthy. I don’t know if the contamination happened during the shipment, or the lactose intolerance, but it made a bunch of kids sick, and our helpful people blamed the water and sanitary conditions and told the kids that it was God’s will and told them to pray. And those helpful people came back with pictures and stories about the dangers they faced, much of which was the food poisoning they themselves were responsible for.

    It was so blatantly apparent that many of these helpful people considered the residents of my Mother’s home country less than them, in culture and in humanity.

    I do know of missionaries that do incredible work. Blessman Ministries in Africa are such that they wish to aid without destroying culture.

  3. You’re so cool! I do not believe I’ve truly read anything like this before.
    So nice to discover someone with a few unique thoughts on this topic.

    Really.. many thanks for starting this up.
    This site is one thing that is required on the web, someone with some originality!

  4. From one voluntourist to another… You’re right. Your money is more fruitful than your presence.

    You will never be able to make a big difference in their lives within a span of a few weeks. I’ve long accepted this fact. But every interaction with someone different encourages cultural exposure to both parties. To the people we voluntour for, this might be their few moments to see beyond their bubble. The stories we take back and share thereafter creates more awareness for problems outside what you would have in your own country. One more voice is better than one less. In some sense such trips are mutually beneficial.

    Ask yourself this: Had you not been there to see and experience for yourself, would you trust enough to donate money to a less established non profit organisation 3,000 miles away? Would you believe enough to spread the word on a worthy cause?

  5. This is an excellent perspective. I myself have not participated in any volunteer trips like this, but my former church frequently goes to India with lots of medical staff to actually meet tangible needs and help the native people plant churches. My older brother, who is fluent in Japanese and now lives in Japan for his job, once served with a missions family that planted a church near Tokyo that is now led by Japanese people. He taught English classes for the 13 months he was there. I know that the money that supports the trips to India and that supported my brother in Japan actually sent skilled people to provide real services, while equipping the locals to be independent and effective after they’d gone.

  6. i love to see you always bc you are good in all affairs. pls contact me directly on +24102736633 or email me on; sothat i can take you round to visite all the touristic side in my regard to you all

  7. i enjoyed reading this post, and i can understand your argument that sending money would have been more efficient than having the men redo the brick work you all did during the day, but i think you underestimate one thing. i can’t speak for your experience, but from mine I’ve found that even if the work doesn’t last, the locals have expressed a huge appreciation that we have given up our time to help them, that as human to human we are helping, and not just sending a check. anyone can send a check, but giving up time and the comforts of home to physically help someone i think is more meaningful. it sounds like you all should have done things you were capable of and something that would have actually been beneficial to the local community, and i don’t think you can discount volunteerism/voluntourism/whatever because of this mistake. yes, it’s not perfect but it shouldn’t be written off either.

    1. I don’t think giving up your time and spending $3000 dollars just to make that trip is more meaningful. Ya sure the locals are happy to have played with this white girl with her hair that they could barely talk to. The fact is however that $3000 could’ve gone a long way in giving some locals jobs to build that library and put food on their families table. It would’ve meant some economic freedom for them and the job would’ve been done a lot more quicker so these kids development would have not been delayed. It is very annoying when a person from some western country comes to Africa and just think they’re gona be our saviors by kicking the ball around with us. If you are not skilled at something why waste people’s time, would it not be better for you to donate funds (or buy a product made by the organisation) so that they can find someone who is better equipped to do the work. Donate funds so that we are able to train more people to be self sufficient, to enhance their skills and attain economic freedom. Find better ways of helping our people out, ways that are respectful to their culture, enhance their socio-economic well-being, but before you even do that get your mentality right. Don’t come in with a holier than thou mentality (now this is not directed to you, but more general),don’t come in thinking your religion or beliefs are better than ours, respect the people you are dealing with enough so that you do not hinder their progression in trying to make you feel good, because essentially that is what you are (she was) here to do, help their socio-economic progession. Compassion is nothing without sensibility.

  8. I agree with this but its not just white people coming to terms with years of guilt that they accumulate, it has a lot to do with the first world in general, applying a cruel imperialistic lense over work, and development in the third world. With no basic understanding of cultural and spiritual meaning in the countries they want to help, they do pose as a threat to not only the development of the future of that country but they continue to perpetrate the cycle of exploitation by believing that fixing the third world can be done by throwing money at the “problem”. This has created so much tension, violence and as we all know foreign aid is more about intervention style guilt pleasing and volunteering is more about throwing money at a tree. So much so that parts of the third world now believe it necessary to continue receiving aid, for fear of being abandoned or forgotten. We are throwing money at the wrong part of the system, we should be helping and facilitating change at governmental levels, supporting the knowledge of the locals, facilitating engineers and labourers to build pipes and water ways, buildings, roads, (if wanted) this is not about shoving my beliefs down someone’s throat it’s about listening to the wishes of the people and facilitating the most effecting way to allow them to solve their problems, if no help is needed or wanted why must the first world feel as if it’s there duty to intervene? Quick solution ? Or the conintuing of the degradation of culture and meaning and development.

  9. As an anthropology student it is refreshing to see this take on voluntourism. The few classes that took the side of the american anthropologist not always being a benifit to a developing community with a different culture were the most intriguing. It set you straight before you made a blunder. We as a class found that the main issue for these blundered attempts to help were caused by not listening to the cultural standards of the area, not a lack of wanting to help. The best person to understand the culture and know how to effectively help with this would be a local. I don’t go on mission trips, I mainly visit different cultures to learn, asking them to teach me what they know so I can expand my thinking to aide my community. I feel everyone can benifit from visiting and living within a culture other than their own. It opens the mind to ideas that you could never comprehend fully on your own.

  10. I find several things troubling about this point of view.

    1. The problem with building the library was clearly an issue with the management of the organization running the trip. There are, of course, some poorly managed programs out there, that don’t place the right people with the right projects. That should not detract from the fact that the people on your trip wanted to help and put forth an effort to make a positive change. Don’t blame the volunteers for a poorly organized/executed program. Did you provide feedback to the program as to how they could change it to be more effective?

    2. If you think it’s not appropriate to be a white girl in an African or Hispanic place because the children don’t relate to you, have you thought about volunteering in Eastern Europe? They need help in places like Albania, Moldova, Ukraine etc. Or volunteering in the U.S. is great too. I am Asian American and I volunteered in Asia last year, I felt that I really connected with the young girls especially — here they saw a young independent lady, who looked kind of like them, who traveled by herself across the world. It opens up their minds to think beyond the neighborhood. And anywhere you go, even if you don’t know the language, just practicing English with the children will help them, and their opportunities for education and work, immensely.

    3. You had the opportunity to go, experience volunteering in a few places, and come back with your own opinions and impressions of that experience. In telling other people NOT to go travel to volunteer, you are depriving them of the opportunity to go and see for themselves, and to then form their own opinion, which may be different from yours. Their experience may be much different from yours. Mine sure was.

    Discouraging others doesn’t seem like the right answer — perhaps providing constructive advice as to how to find a program that fits each person could be a better way to utilize your experiences with a positive tone.

    1. thank you for this difference of opinion. The concept of voluteering internationally is something I have wanted to do for a long time, and something I feel might not help as well. But I like the advice in finding the appropriate organization.

  11. I absolutely live your realization of wanting to help/thinking that your helping, and actually helping can be two different things. A true humanitarian understands this aspect.
    I also understand and agree with some of your points of the “white savior” conplex and such, but I disagree that your failure had anything to do with you being white. You just needed the right qualifications in my point of view. Someone who understands the culture and speaks the language would be more helpful than someone who does not. Any color person can obtain those qualifications. Not just that race/ethnicity.

    1. Definitely spot on with this comment.

      As she mentioned in the article, there was a black participant in the trip who probably didn’t contribute anything further than the other western volunteers.

  12. When I read the title of your piece, I thought to myself “Well, finally someone is going to say it!” I appreciated the reading at first, but then I had conflict with some of the things you said, then I realized you were (and are) a “little white girl.” Had I beed a white girl, I would have probably loved your piece. I would have agreed with every positive comment you’ve got, which I can guarantee were all written by white women. The reason is perspective. I never comment (ever) on posts, mostly because it’s not my responsibility to educate people. However, I will make the exception this case and I hope you at least think about my points, just as I read through your piece and identified significant flaws in your thinking. First, besides little white people being completely useless in the developing world and besides the American white savior complex most people like me hate (me = American educated but from the developing world), the United States has done (and continues to do) horrible things to most countries in this world, putting them between the knife and the wall, because of economic interests. You don’t know about this, because you haven’t seen it and you probably haven’t read it either (not because you might be incult, but because you were not born in those shoes and most American people trust too much what they see in their American news). The last thing we want is another American person to try to “save us” when there is a big American government in the back trying to take advantage of us. Second, there’s nothing in this world that I hate more than the rich white kid saying “volunteering abroad changed my life.” No, please don’t. We don’t need to remember how privileged you (people) are that being abroad “helping” others changed your life. Find a problem, read about it, find a non-profit, and do work for them from home (home = U.S.) There are a lot of complex issues to be tackled in most of the developing world, so if you really want to help, help the one way you can. Please don’t encourage people to go get volunteering abroad experiences. We (or at least I) don’t need an army of white people pretending to be good and be “saving” the world — funny enough, that sounds like the actually U.S. army, but here I mean civilians. Third, the United States has complex problems too that need of “little white girls” like yourself to fix. There’s something inherently wrong with someone saying “I will engage in an expensive volunteering experience abroad in the developing world (aka vacation), but I won’t think the “developing world” that may be a couple of blocks away from my paradise in American white suburbia.” Instead of thinking about how will you change the world, think about how you will help those with American passports who don’t get the taste of white privilege and instead are alienated and violated as human beings.

    Americans, don’t spend your time and energy abroad (in a place where, deep down, you are actually not welcomed and you will not be helpful) and instead focus your energy in learning about and solving the complex, and clearly f up, problems the United States has (where your voice and efforts will actually matter and make a difference).

    We don’t need more white American people telling us we need their help, for the purposes ego-boost and getting “life-changing experiences” out of the expense of someone else’s “miserable” life. GTFO and go help your own people (whom really need the help, just don’t get any of it because most white rich kids want to get their “life-changing experiences” abroad).

    Finally, if you are going to use your voice, use it wisely. Don’t spread the wrong message. You’ve clearly never been on the other end, you don’t know what it’s like to be on the other end, so don’t go around pretending like you know what you are talking about when 1) you only got the white-washed experience (the volunteering abroad experience white people get) and 2) you know nothing about the complexities and serious issues in the US (otherwise you would invest your energy in solving them), and much less about the complexities of the development world. Don’t worry, this is not about you. This is about your entire demographic.

    1. What makes you think you were “highly educated”? Clearly you weren’t. You couldn’t lay a brick. Exactly how much brain power does that take? And you made it clear your black friend was considered white. So get off the white savior thing. Are you saying if you had all been black it would have been different? It would not have. Then it would just be “foreign savior” issue. This is not a race issue. It is a cultural issue. You weren’t doing anything there except annoying the locals. So was your black friend. That is why they labeled her white. they were just labeling her same as you. Basically interfering and providing nothing. So get off the racial issue. You aren’t a “little white girl” in this context. You and your black friend are both “little, arrogant , stupid Americans” in this context.

      This clearly was nothing but a field trip designed to make you feel good abut yourself. If the locals had to fix your brick work every night, then why the WTF were you there for anyway? Obviously they could do it since they were. How is that different than showing up at a construction site here in the U.S. and “helping”. And for what reason? So you can experience what it is like to work hard for low wage. You would get the same reaction here. You would be perceived ans arrogant, condescending etc. Why? Because you would just be passing though.

      You didn’t go there to accomplish anything. You went there so you could let these people know that you “feel their pain” and then move on in a week. Of course they didn’t like it.

      Now I don’t expect you to have seen this coming as a high school kid. But the question is why didn’t your parents, school, organization know better. clearly you weren’t the first to get this reaction. Now maybe if you really planned to be there for a year and bring a skill they didn’t have, like teach them to build if they didn’t know how that would be different. But you went there and said “oh you poor people; let me lay a few bricks while a pass through.” Even if you had done it correctly what would you expect. they might be poor. They might need a lot of things. But apparently they DIDN’T need you to do 6 hours of work for them.

      Clearly that kind of basic work i going to be in their skill set and NOT in your little white girl skill set for obviously reasons. Its called necessity.

      So here is a suggestion. Next time you wan to help someone, Help them so something they can’t do that you can. Offering to relieve them of their work for a week , and screw it up in the process is of no value.

    2. The majority of people who volunteer abroad have also volunteered in their home country (60%), says one study. Many people do both. America has lots of programs that help people in the country in need, I’ve worked on these projects as well as overseas. I worked with one guy in Nepal who came from a poor, war-torn village as a young boy and recently graduated college — he was so grateful for the help of volunteers, which he said gave him the opportunity and help he needed to accomplish this. We still keep in touch. I don’t think he, or others I’ve met, would ever tell the volunteers to go home or that they are not welcome.

  13. I am glad you found way to help those in need that best suite your skill set. Don’t stay in the white guilt trap. Cops hassle poor white kids too.


    Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare. Japanese Proverb

    I have volunteered overseas myself , that’s how I first came to visit Sri Lanka in 2006 and I know I had a romantic idea of my first trip and how I was “helping” . Seven years later with the experience of setting up and running Dogstar I know how incredibly naïve I was and I am increasingly worried about the sudden rise in “voluntourism” both here in Sri Lanka and the entire Asia region.

    For example In the last 2 years there has been a huge expansion in “volunteering opportunities” with elephants in a relatively small area around our base , these are often run by people with no animal welfare credentials or even elephant management experience and the volunteering placements are being sold via third parties at prices that would pay for 2 weeks in a 5 star hotel ! These elephants are actually owned elephants still being used for the tourist trade and the volunteers although compassionate about elephant welfare are just adding money to the pockets of the elephant owners and the secondary business that has been created around them.

    An Elephant Charity who used to offer free food and accommodation for unwanted ex working elephants have also seen a sharp reduction in working elephants “retiring” as even elderly/disabled elephants can now still be profitable to owners as they are kept working with “volunteers” I have witnessed first hand dangerous programs where volunteers are interacting with elephants with no correct supervision sold being via third parties who have never even visited the project !

    In short the impact on captive elephants has been negative , now people have found another way of monetizing captive elephants and increasing their working life , welfare suffers and most importantly nothing changes for the elephants

    Voluntourism companies don’t just sell animal volunteering , just as worryingly I have also meet teenagers from the UK volunteering with children in remote “orphanages” , these volunteers don’t speak Sinhala or Tamil , they have no experience or qualifications to be working with children who may have lost family members to the war or Tunsmai. There is no support or training given to explain about local cultures , values or even dress codes. There is no long term project plan just a series of unqualified short term volunteers paying vast sums of money to third party companies to “volunteer”

    If you are thinking of volunteering abroad with us or any other organisation working with animals or people I would suggest you ask your self and indeed the organisation the following questions
    What is the need ?

    What am I going to do that will address that need / do I have the right skills and experiences to actually help

    Could local people could be employed and trained to address the need
    Is the organisation I am working with in country an NGO/Charity or a business
    Am I “booking” with the organisation directly or via a third party
    How does the NGO/ Charity /business measure the impact the program is having
    What supervision/ training will I receive
    Where does the money I pay actually go , what % is given to the project if booked via a third party
    Does the project really need hands on volunteering or could I provide more practical help from home with fundraising or virtual volunteering

    Of course not all volunteering programs are to be avoided, Volunteering with the right project can be an incredibility worthwhile and rewarding experience , at Dogstar we do run a small volunteer program, we don’t accept volunteers year round nor do we have vast numbers , normally just 1-2 people , we turn away far more people than we accept each year because we believe volunteering should benefit both the volunteer and the host organisation but most importantly volunteers should always always make a positive difference to the organisations benefactors.

    Samantha Green – In Country Director & Founder
    Dogstar Foundation

    1. It’s unfortunate that you have had experiences where you felt like you weren’t making a difference. Our organization leads volunteer trips to Costa Rica ( and Ethiopia ( yearly and we are making HUGE strides in the communities we work with. Perhaps the trip model of the organizations you went with weren’t those of real, lasting change. We are seeing the facts of children’s lives being enhance simply because we show up year after year and show them that we care-that they are not forgotten. We stay in touch with them throughout the year until our return the following year. The children are learning about culture, empowerment and self-esteem because of our presence. We have raised enough money to install dry erase boards in every single classroom of the school and we are in the process of building a theater stage so they can continue to be empowered by performing for their peers. There is an air of positive change in the communities! I invite you consider traveling with other organizations after doing some research that they are creating lasting change in the communities they visit. I have countless testimonials of volunteers’ lives that are changed from traveling with us and proof that they continue to serve-both in our communities and internationally. I’m sorry you had such unfulfilling experiences and hope you don’t stop there!

      Jennie Lobato
      Founder/CEO, drawchange Inc

  15. Ok, well stop thinking your degree is worth anything outside stateside and grab a broom, move some dirt. There are plenty of tasks at hand that you can’t fuck up other than a self glorified blog post. Waste of time

  16. It would be nice if you were more careful. In my opinion, not being qualified to help in construction and sharing the love of Christ are two very very different issues. As a believer, you are commanded to go to all the world with the gospel. Look at history, was Lottie Moon not effective in China, Adoniram Judson in Burma, or Jim Elliot in Ecuador, just to name a few? The color of your skin or nationality does not matter in the spiritual realm. Paul went to the gentiles. So in this point, I do not agree with you at all. Not being able to built a Library, OK, it would be wise to know and accept one’s limitations. Keep on traveling and blessing the world with the Gospel!!!

    1. Think of all the horrible things that have happened to people over history when whites tried to “spread the gospel” overseas.

      At the end of the day, well intentioned or not, your religion won’t bring food or education or whatever else is truly needed to those developing countries.

      1. Many organizations that I am involved with take care of the physical and spiritual needs of all peoples. Sharing what Christ did on the cross is very important. The Gospel is the good news people need. If you know that you are a sinner. God sent His only Son to the world. He lived a perfect life and died to offer Himself as a payment for all those sins we have committed and will commit. If you believe and accept this awesome free gift from God. He will forgive you of your sins and will accept you into heaven when you die. Also, after you believe with your mind and heart, He makes you a new person. A person eager to do HIs will and share this great news with others. You hear sometimes of one dying for a friend/a good person. Just think of someone dying for someone else who did not deserve. It is pure grace, mercy, and love what Jesus did on the cross. I pray this will touch someone’s heart today.
        “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” John 3:16
        Love, Simone

      2. Sara, it turns out my wife accidentally interacted with you while signed in on my WordPress account. I’m not interested in being involved (or being perceived as being involved) in a debate with you, so please pardon the confusion. Please delete the comments made under my name. Thanks.

  17. I lead groups of 17-25 year olds on service adventure tours in Latin America and Asia. I studied community development in grad school, thinking I wanted to work in the international development sector. After all the class discussions about the failures of top down development and potential inadequacies of grassroots community development, I decided that we were only working to put a band aid on a systemic problem. If we want to inspire development and bring less developed nations up to our same level of education, health, and economic opportunity we must change the way we think. We must teach young women and men of all races that their economic and environmental practices, as well as their volunteer service, can and does have an impact on people in developing countries. During the semester trips I lead, we do a toilet building project in rural Cambodia. It’s a relatively simple task but the impact is huge- improved sanitation for the family, all of their neighbors, and a much safer place for women and girls to relieve themselves (sexual assaults in areas lacking home toilets are common). After eleven years we’ve got a toilet in almost every home in the village.
    During one of our projects we were talking with the family about their different jobs. It turned out the teenage girl was away working in an American owned garment factory making just enough to keep her out of school. This sparked a conversation amongst our group about where we shop and how we might use our buying practices to support companies who don’t employ minors, treat their workers fairly, to generally lessen our consumption practices, and the importance of education for development to happen.
    During our service projects we stay in family homes contributing to the local economy yes, but more importantly we get a chance to commune with one another and engage in authentic cultural exchange. We cook, clean, and eat together, share stories, and play games. This is what international travel should be about- a mutual sharing that helps us to understand that our differences do not make us immune to one another’s suffering; we’re all in this together. It’s not just about how long the toilet lasts or how many kids use the library, it’s about building communities that ignore imagined barriers of nationality, language, race, religion, or how much privilege one was or wasn’t born with. It’s about learning to care about people you’ll never meet.
    My hope is that upon returning to the US and commencing university my participants will take their experiences and change their own behavior, and maybe even be inspired enough to work in a field that promotes peace and equality. There are organizations out there doing great work to help alleviate some of the everyday struggles of men, women, and the environment in developing countries by using voluntourists. On top of it all they are helping to change the thinking of young women and men in developed countries which has the potential to have a long lasting impact.

  18. Since both of my (white) children are in Tanzania at this very moment, I find this really interesting. I’m choosing to believe her point of the story is that her line very near the end stating that you should evaluate your gifts & strengths & make sure they meet the needs of the place you are going. My children & the other 15 (white) people from our church are mostly painting walls as the work portion of their trip. Luckily they are all very capable people & are well equipped (personally & paint utensils) for this job. I would hate to see anyone discouraged by this young woman’s experience. I hope people only see the valid point of knowing yourself & the task & making sure you are with people who understand the culture of the people you are visiting & that you are actually helping. She obviously wasn’t in that situation. I’m glad she found a way to help that doesn’t require her to step outside her comfort zone. While some young people can do that & make personal sacrifices to help others, apparently some cannot. I agree with her that she needs to not be hands on. If she thinks the white people are saving any of the people they are doing work for, she’s really off base. I can speak from my own time in Africa & many others I know well—we received FAR more than we gave. It is a PRIVILEGE to enter someone else home & life & spend time with them. It is a clique but true none the less—you get way more than you give.

    1. robi – whilst i applaud your children – I must ask why there are so may “voluntourism” opportunities that include painting – Tanzania, like most counties in Africa,has weather that means that paint will not be very pretty a year down the road – the cynic in me thinks that this is why “painting” is so attractive all round – an easy fix that can be sold year after year – I question what contibution painting has for the growth of economically poor communities – and i do know that the vast majority of volunteers are well meaning – sadly they are all too often exploited – along with the communities they seek to serve

      1. Thanks, but my kids don’t need applause or any recognition at all. They are the ones who are lucky & blessed to be able to visit Tanzania, the incredible country that it is. They are painting the walls in a K-12 school. I don’t think they will be effecting the growth of the economy-we all wish it were that easy. We believe that you can do what you can do. If the painting, the supplies delivered there, ie birthing kits, first aid supplies, plus fun things, like jump ropes, books, bubbles & soccer balls helps to ease the lives of theses particular people then that’s what we’re called to do now. Your point about the painting is valid but demonstrates why painting is needed. People who live in economically ( & medically & academically, etc…) poor countries deserve to surrounded by & educated in a place that is attractive & conducive to learning. Just like my kids do here in the US. We have raised thousands for mosquito nets & spread an awareness of the epidemic of Malaria. Maybe that fits more into your category of curing large scale problems. We can’t all do ‘great’ things, but we can do small things with great love. Our group is there with an American who has spent a very long time in this particular community & knows the people well. This is her 7th trip to this same school. They are spending time together, forming relationships. Again, no answer to global issues but for a 2 week period hopefully all the people involved are learning about each other’s differences & our sameness & that counts for something.

  19. Okay, the fact that I have a daughter who has done this type of program and another daughter who is planning to do something similar next year with two of her friends may bias my reaction to this, but, with that said, here is my reaction:

    *It’s true that the work my girls did/will do could be done more efficiently and cheaply by someone else. It’s not so much that they are “volunteering” to do it, but that parents are paying for them to have the experience. (Or, as was the case with my older daughter and as will be the case with my younger one, they are raising the money and paying for it themselves.) But as long as that’s clear enough, I don’t think that fact should prevent kids from going on these trips.

    *These trips are for the benefit of the kids taking the trip, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing. Depending on the quality of the program, these kids may have the opportunity to come face-to-face with issues that they could not have grasped in any other way. They may learn about the underlying issues. They may come back ready to make a real difference in the world.

    *In the case of my younger daughter and her two friends, they were all born into difficult circumstances in Ethiopia. They will be relating to the children they work with in Ghana on a very personal level — they’ve all been there themselves. They are not white, but will they be seen as white? They may be. I don’t know. But I know that what my daughter wants more than anything is to learn about the issues so that she will be in a better position to make a positive difference with her life.

    *Does it matter whether the kids’ skin is more the color of a cocoa bean or a chick pea? They may be received differently. They will see what they see and learn what they learn through different lenses. And they may get very different things out of the experience. So it is definitely different. But the experience will result in better educated people who will be able to make more responsible decisions over the course of their lives.

    I worry about the impact of going negative on these types of programs.

  20. There is something to be said about the fact that people are most likely going to take a yearly vacation anyway. They could go and drop the same amount on a vacation to The Florida Keys or Hawaii. In this case, wouldn’t it be better to spend the vacation serving in a place where the locals are asking for people to come and help? The assumption is that the $3,000 could be sent. However, the reality is that if the person was not going, there probably would not be $3,000 to send. After the cost of the plane ticket, $1500 of the $3,000 from that persons voluntourism now goes into the local economy for that country rather than to US Tourism Corporations.

    Also, I do not think these trips harm the people or the country when the invitation is extended by citizens of the host country. I think it is western superiority complex to say that the ones inviting us to serve do not realize what is good for them and their fellow citizens. If they extend the invitation and ask for us to come and help, then I think we should respond. It seems wrong to tell them we have decided not to come because they do not realize that it is not good for them. However, I do think we should not go unless there is an invitation.

    So, thousands of dollars are flowing into these countries as a result of the trips, locals are leading their own ‘in country’ organizations and finding international resources to equip them, relationships are being built, and US citizens are eyewitness to the fact that our political policies need to change. I see a lot of good happening as a result of these trips.

  21. You have some good points, but they’re lost in your arrogance and condescension. You’re essentially saying, “I got some interesting experiences that shaped my world view and made me much more aware of things that need to be changed in the world around me. But nobody else should get the same opportunity (or even a better, more culturally-aware one) because, in my vast wisdom, I’ve decided it’s wrong.”

    Minds and lives are changed through interpersonal interaction far more than they are changed through slide shows and Youtube videos, and good, interactive work can change minds and lives on both sides. Can “voluntourism” be improved? Of course it can. But your belief that it should essentially be eliminated for all because of your own experiences is shockingly egotistical.

  22. BThompson’s comment is necessary and very truthful. Our society would rather take pity on this girl’s experience than focus on the larger problems that our suffocating the populations of the developing world- due mainly because of an unending colonial legacy based on greed and racism. Welcome to the real world Miss. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Point. Don’t go as a savior giving to and doing for the objects of your charity, getting photo ops and telling them about your life. Instead, intend to do whatever it takes to become part of community, as defined by local community (in-country or abroad).

    This takes time and consideration, two things we are reluctant to give.

  24. Reblogged this on helpward40 and commented:
    This article really hit home after I did my Elective Placement in Sri Lanka. It echoed my anxiety on the plane going out.. “what AM I DOING? These people don’t need me”. I felt like a medical Tourist.

  25. A response….

    A Different Take on “The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys, and Voluntourism ”

    This is a response to an article written by Pippa Biddle.

    Here is my experience in six years in northern Uganda and nine different service trips to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, MS. with anywhere from 21 to 97 students on the trip. Each year when I come to Gulu, Uganda I meet amazing young women who are striving to the best for the people of Gulu and beyond. The first year I met a young girl named Amelia who decided to go by herself to help teach the Karimajong. She did it because they were losing their teacher and without hesitation picked up that challenge. Over the years in Gulu, I see western Internet cafes filled with the only white people in town and these numbers always seem to be 65% to 80% …women. I mused this with my friend
    Father Leonsyo and he told me that is because women think with their hearts, they want to love all, and care for those that need help.

    Over the years I have been part of five different teaching groups, again more than 2/3 women. I have seen them start Hip Hop Clubs, have empowerment programs, and spend a lot of time of just being there with the students. The impact alone of showing young Ugandan girls that education works is of great importance. In the best cases, they were standing at the front of the classroom with their Ugandan teaching partner, showing the students what 2 dedicated women could do. Sure, I have scene mistakes and people who probably should have left their electric hair straightener at home. But for the most part they were incredible. Many have taken their talents post-Uganda to other places in our world like Thailand, Korea, and Egypt or back home to help with the teaching of recent immigrants. The organization I worked under was not perfect and made mistakes, yet I also know two women, Kristine and Laura from that program who have made a long term commitment to northern Uganda and using the past to build a better model for future success of their students.

    Here is where I think the original article missed a big benefit. Kinship, reaching across miles and oceans, is what makes all of this work. I would consider more than a handful of Ugandans to be my friends. They welcome me into their homes with smiles, greetings, and the best feast they can find. It is extremely humbling to know what my friends have done for me in their homes. I strived to match that when 3 of these friends spent a month in the states teaching in a classroom filled with “little white girls”. I see the smiles and the love everyday between the “Munus(Lwo for white people) and the Acholi tribe people. It is real and what makes the difference here. Father Gregory Boyle says that “Service is just the hallway to the ballroom of Kinship”. And this is where Pippa Biddle and I probably agree: building a library, painting a school, tutoring a student is nothing without pushing forward and developing that kinship. The kinship does not happen here. It happens when we do not expect it by sharing a meal of Posho or introducing Ugandans to wiffle ball. It is in the conversation of equals where friendship happens. Indeed, that is where we find love.

    Now the story in the previous article, where the Tanzanians had to rebuild the wall each night does not condemn the trip and the effort, but shows there was serious gaps in leadership on this trip. Why was this not noticed by her teachers and chaperones. Ms. Biddle argues that you should not volunteer without talent or maybe even construction expertise. I want to say in my experience that is also incorrect. I have watched 16 girls with no construction experience build and frame a house because they had two great leaders who were patient and skilled with their teaching of the skills needed. This group of high school girls, with a few great leaders, regularly accomplishes more than some seasoned construction groups do. Mostly because they do everything they can to stuff 50 hours of work into a 40 hour work week.

    This year, we had 8 girls who had little or no construction experience who by Wednesday were picking up nail guns like a pro or hollering measurements around the house. These eight got great, because we had 13 “little white girls” who each summer return to The Back Bay Mission to share
    their expertise and lead in so many ways . The dads and one mom with construction skills are great, but all of them would give the credit to the success of this trip to this baker’s dozen. Several of these students now have real jobs. So this week of service comes with real sacrifices. Giving up trips to Chicago and Florida to spend a week with our friends on the Gulf Coast.

    This amazing group of “little white girls” can take down and put up scaffolding with the best of them. They can cut PermaBoard and nail gun it with ease. The highlight of the week were not these talents that they shared. At the start there is always standing around time. These ones purposely changed standing around time, to cleaning up the yard time. They attacked ugly stumps, picked up glass and trash, and removed a decade old pile of dirt in the backyard with some Katrina debris included.

    Then it happened, right where the biggest , ugliest stump used to be–a kickball game. Five children now playing in the reclaimed yard along with several from the block who could not miss this happening. Thirty of us now playing kickball. With the booming kick of the seven year old girl laughter and whoops from all. There it was kinship so real you could taste it.

    Pippa,, I would love to share a meal some times and swap storie, you have done a lot of good.. And to all the Little White Girls, do your homework, know as best you can the culture and the people, adjust your attitude in the right way, and then leap.

    Your heart can be in the right place, but I think it is important that your feet are in the right place too.

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