Critical Voices on Voluntourism and the Classism of Literature

Walking back to Nakavika from a swim, 2009

I’m chipping away at my manuscript one daunting page at a time, but I’ve also been doing some continued hefty research on the topics it addresses. I’m interested in sharing what I’ve found this week in order to spark your thinking. I encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments so that everyone can benefit from your point of view.

NOTE: If you’ve never considered that voluntourism can have negative effects, the following might be a hard pill to swallow. And if you’ve never considered service abroad to be problematic, I’m very glad you’ve decided to read this post. I wish I would have known about or considered these perspectives decades ago.

Orientalism and the Neo-Imperialism of Voluntourism

Have you heard of Edward Said? He’s a founding voice on postcolonial theory. This article connects his explanation of orientalism with the modern trend of voluntourism and clearly states the cultural and economical implications of foreign nationals (often from historically imperialistic nations, regardless of their intentions) who try to “help” communities and cultures to which they don’t originally belong.

The assumption that relatively unskilled Westerners can drop into a community and do good simply by being well-intentioned implies an inherent superiority in their identity and culture. Within the spirit of voluntourism is the underlying assumption that it is exposure to Western culture that will, by nature of its being Western, solve the problems of ‘undeveloped’ nations.

No one likes to be misunderstood nor clumped into a group to which they feel they don’t belong. I think that’s why discussions about these issues often become accusatory or defensive, especially when the “humanitarian” being challenged truly believes they are acting in the way they were raised to believe was right and just. That was certainly how I felt.

Hence why it might be hard to accept that many of us come from imperialistic nations...and that THAT identity attaches to us, regardless. The inspiration to help people often comes from many root causes, but it’s essential that even people who don’t see any error in their humanitarian impulse should investigate what empowers or enables them to assume those roles, why this incredibly inefficient form of service thrives today, and if there’s even the slightest possibility that the good they intend bring could usher in harm. And if that harm is worth the supposed good (a decision that should not ultimately be theirs).

The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice,” [Teju] Cole writes, “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Rather than respecting the humanity and agency of the people subject to voluntourists’ whims, the industry overemphasizes the importance of the experience for the privileged helper.

The Literary Class System is Impoverishing Literature

Often—as I sit in my spacious apartment, living off my savings, revising my MFA thesis—I think about privilege. I spend a lot of time reading about the worlds of writing and publishing. I wonder why they work the way they do and whether I can sustain myself financially as a part of either, as someone who really truly enjoys writing. They seem exclusive.

View from my apartment

And yet, I know I already have a leg up in accessing these exclusive worlds by being able to afford this window of time to focus on my writing (after having the time and money to get an MFA). This article gave me another opportunity to assess my standing in the writing world, regardless of talent, and it reminded of the importance of providing access to writing experiences and support for people often left out of literature (and reading their work).

…the creation of literature demands a certain honesty about one’s experiences, that we might narrow the gaps between our fellow human beings.

There are such programs coming out of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver that I hope to attend/support in the near future. I’d love to hear about other writers or events of which you know.

Critical/Educational Voices on Cross-Cultural Service

Some of the voices I’ve been listening to this week are Samira Sawlani, Rafia Zakaria, Pippa Biddle, Ethical Storytelling, and the people behind Learning Service. And I continue to follow the work of No White Saviors and their efforts to inform and hold harmful people accountable for their actions.

I encourage you to look into their commentaries and bring a critical eye to cross-cultural, humanitarian, service-oriented (sometimes faith-powered) issues as they crop up in your personal discussions. I’ve been actively studying these issues for a few years now and still find myself blown away and humbled continuously by what I never knew and what I perpetuated without knowing it.

That’s all for now. Thank you for reading, and I hope you share your thoughts below. I’ll leave you with the last paragraph of the first article shared above, one that relates to the focus of my young adult life: the value of cultural exchange and exposure.

Many argue that regardless of the costs, there is an inherent value in the cultural exchange. Young people who may otherwise not be exposed to poverty are able to see it first hand, and face-to-face contact with those who live differently has the potential to create empathy where there might otherwise be ignorance. However, travel without the helping component has the potential to provide these benefits without the costs inherent to voluntourism. The global reach of American cultural hegemony intoxicates young idealists with the myth that their cultural superiority itself is a gift to the communities they sacrifice their time and money to serve.