Does Voluntourism Warp How We See Other Countries?

In a large, dark room in an orphanage in Vietnam, I sat beside a child who couldn’t have been older than 5.

He appeared to have limited mobility in his legs, but he twisted his torso to look at the strangers in the room. His eyes were bright and he called to other children around him.

I was a month into my travels with Semester at Sea, an exchange program that takes students on a whirlwind trip around the world on a ship. Myself and a busload of mostly American students had signed up for a day trip, in which we would be touring multiple sights around Ho Chi Minh City, including this orphanage for children with disabilities.

The majority of the children who filled the room were lying on thin mats, but some were strapped by their wrists and legs into plastic high-chairs.  My classmates spread out throughout the room. Other than smiles we had little to offer.  

Some were given bowls of mush to spoon feed to the children. Obviously, with none of us speaking Vietnamese, it was difficult to distinguish if noises made by the children were words or if they were sounds of distress or happiness. I was struck with how utterly unqualified I was to interact with these children, who require such intimate care and knowledge.

The Problem With Voluntourism

VN - Welcome sign

‘Voluntourism’ has become a hot term in discussions surrounding the ethical implications of volunteering while traveling. Its literal definition is the combination of short-term volunteering with tourism, where mostly Western tourists will pay large sums of money to engage in labour intensive tasks, including childcare, teaching, and building schools. Trips are often sold as a meaningful way to make a lasting impact while having a good time and snapping ideal Instagram pics. Carnival Cruise Line even recently launched Fathom, which integrates voluntourism into cruise vacation packages.

I didn’t recognize my experience at this orphanage as voluntourism until I returned home. A viral article written by blogger Pippa Biddle in 2014 entitled The Problem with Little White Girls (And Boys): Why I Stopped Being a Voluntourist was my first exposure to the issue. What seemed like an issue confined to blogs and think pieces, has now become a serious topic of concern and an issue of academic discourse. Orphanage voluntourism specifically, the type I encountered, encourages families to leave children in order for them to have someone to care for them when they are unable, and results in children being further traumatized by a continuous Ferris wheel of strangers who they form bonds with, and then who disappear.

What I Learned in Vietnam

Back on the bus, I thought about the other experiences I had in Vietnam in the days previous. I had slept on the couch of a young Vietnamese woman, and she had introduced me to her friends. I clung tightly to my friend as we drove around the city on her motorcycle, and we played badminton in the alley by her house.  She took me to her favourite lunch spot, hidden through twisted alleys and streets. In two short days, it felt to me like her life could have been mine if I had merely been born on the other side of the world.

VN - Mirror

If my only experience of Vietnam had been those children in the orphanage, what would have been my impression of the country? I may have thought that it was truly a suffering nation without the resources to care for it’s most vulnerable. Would I have thought that it is a country that needed Western volunteers to spoon-feed and entertain children?

I think that one of the dangers of voluntourism often not articulated enough is the way in which volunteer travel can shape an image of a country in the eyes of the volunteer. If I was to only see the need in a country and how they desperately need my help, I would not be able to appreciate the skills, life, and world of a wonderfully unique and capable nation – and what a mistake that would have been.

Further Reading:

For more information about the implications of voluntourism with orphans, I encourage readers to follow #StopOrphanTrips, an ongoing campaign to educate travels and companies. I would also suggest this article by The Guardian, “Volunteers are fueling the growth of orphanages in Uganda. They need to stop”, as well as the documentary Volunteers Unleashed (only available in Canada).

(Featured Image via Tormond Sandtorv)

Rebecca Isaak

Rebecca is a Canadian graduate student currently studying International Development. While she loves her studies, she is excited for school to end and her career to begin - one reason she chose this field is because how it allows for long-term travel and a meaningful career. During her undergraduate degree, she traveled with Semester at Sea, an exchange program that takes undergrads around the world (literally) on a ship. While abroad she kept a blog, which helped her re-discover a love for writing. Her favourite colour is purple, she is horrible cook, and in August she will be traveling to Lebanon for a year.

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  1. Orphans as a tourist attraction. This is the marketing of emotional experience, and while arguments can and will be made for both sides of this issue, the real concern, as mentioned in the article, is the children. From a unique perspective, this looks like a form of human zoo.

    1. Hi Paul, I completely agree! Often voluntourism trips are so popular because they are emotionally gratifying for the volunteers, although ironically emotionally damaging to the very children they are trying to help. Thanks for your comment.

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