In Depth

Who wants to be a volunteer? Video parodies voluntourism

Tongue-in-cheek video pokes fun at the rise in 'voluntourism', but the message is a serious one

A video highlighting the problems with "voluntourism" has gone viral. A cross between the reality shows Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Survivor, the clip parodies a Western volunteer's experience in Africa.

The group behind it, the Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund (SAIH), wants to challenge Western perceptions of the continent and stimulate debate about development.

But what is voluntourism?

The good intentions of many wealthy Westerners are fuelling a controversial industry known as voluntourism. It can involve anything from "building schools in Uganda or houses in Haiti to hugging orphans in Bali", according to Al Jazeera's Zafia Zakaria. Those who want to take part will often to have to pay heavily for the privilege.

It is a practice that tends to appeal to "idealistic and privileged"  people looking to combine travel with altruism, Somalian blogger Ossob Mohamud has argued in The Guardian.

Why is it a problem?

Mohamud says that the volunteers often have little or no understanding of the history, culture or way of life of the places before they visit. "All that is understood is the poverty and the presumed neediness of the community."

Voluntourism works to reinforce the tired and troublesome stereotypes of the "white hero" saving the "exotic other", she writes, leading to a condescending and superficial relationship. She concludes that Africa should not be allowed to be a "playground" where Westerners can come to "to assuage the guilt of their privilege".

There are other problems with the business of voluntourism. "The foreigners' ability to pay for the privilege of volunteering crowds out local workers," Zakaria of Al Jazeera points out. She also argues that voluntourists are often young and inexperienced in the work they taking part in, and can sometimes do more harm than good.

"One begins to wonder if these trips are designed more for the spiritual fulfilment of the volunteer rather than the alleviation of poverty," says Mohamud.

What do others say?

Not everyone believes voluntourism is bad. The Guardian's Sam Blackledge responds by arguing that work done by volunteers can have a large impact on their own lives and the lives of those they help. He explains that much of the work achieved by volunteers has a lasting impact as projects become self-sufficient.

"Charity in its essence is a chance for those who have more than enough to help those who don't have enough," says Tom Gill, founder of the charity East African Playgrounds. "If privileged people stopped volunteering and making donations then what would happen to the work of thousands of charities worldwide?"

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