If you do a quick google search of “voluntourism”, links to some horrifying stories of child exploitation are likely to surface. Orphanages in Cambodia drawing hundreds of altruistic foreigners gained international notoriety in 2017 when it was exposed that a majority of the children they housed weren’t orphans. Some argue that people from other countries visiting orphanages have contributed to a business model incentivizing parents to place their children in residential care or, worse, for others to make a profit by trafficking children. It is heartbreaking to see the evil that has been done in the name of charity.
“Voluntourism” however does not always result in horrific outcomes. Recognizing it as the literal combination of the words “volunteer” and “tourism” makes the concept pretty obvious to most of us. At some point, we've all had the money to vacation or to participate in a mission trip and we chose to volunteer in another place where we both got to serve and see an exotic location. While we never intended any harm, it’s possible for the spirit of “voluntourism” to still infiltrate our efforts and undermine the dignity of people we visit. Sometimes we go with a heart to serve people, but we catch ourselves in a vulnerable community acting similarly to the way we would at the zoo.
A Day in Their Shoes
Imagine you’re cooking dinner at home while your children play in the yard. Suddenly, Lamborghinis full of foreigners wearing pricey clothing pull into your neighborhood, and people begin disembarking. They stroll through your yard, take pictures of your children, and peer into the windows where you’re cooking. They introduce themselves as high level CEOs and executives learning about your region and ask to come inside with their media teams. Reluctantly you oblige. The cameras they hold look to cost more than your monthly mortgage payment. These people seem important, and you wonder if you’ll be paid for being on camera and where they might broadcast the footage of your home. Upon entering though they seem uncomfortable, clutching their expensive items closely, and whispering to each other as they point to random appliances in your kitchen. Have they never seen a microwave before? You think to yourself. Do they speak English? What are they saying about me that they feel the need to whisper?
We on the 127 staff can all remember a time we’ve accidentally operated like these fictional characters. Would you be surprised to know that in many of the places 127 partners, tourist companies offer “guided tours” through slum areas? Visitors can pay a price to wander through peoples’ homes, taking pictures and viewing their private lives the same way we might tour an aquarium and learn about the natural habitat of fish. Knowing this is a reality for many impoverished people, we are all the more committed to making sure our actions tell a different story.
As you partner with ministries to do mercy ministry among vulnerable peoples, consider these three ways to combat the effects of “voluntourism.”
1. Leave the camera at home.
A central tenet of the story above was the cameras that accompanied the visit. Even among friends, none of us want our photo taken if we’re not prepared and posed for it. And we're all the more wary if it’s a stranger behind the shutter. Children in the community might beg you to “snap my pic,” but if you don’t have a camera on you, you don’t risk miscommunicating your intentions to parents who will wonder what you’ll do with images of their children. Instead, you grab the childrens’ hands and play together, or turn to their mother with your undivided attention and ask questions about her life and family that honor her as a caregiver. You’re able to be present with people in ways that a camera distracts from.
2. Look for similarities.
It’s easy in a new place to list all the things that are different. The food is spicier, the air has an unfamiliar smell to it, and no one follows any semblance of traffic rules. These differences stand out to us because they’re unique and exciting, confirming to us that we’ve been transported into a whole new world our friends and family have never seen. Acknowledging differences is an important first step in learning what other people can teach us. But often our initial reaction is not to esteem the differences as something worth learning from, but to cast them as exotic or weird. Growing from exposure to another way of life requires time and space, so we should resist the urge to focus on every distinction in the moment.
The harder work is to look for what we share in common. How do people here express love for their children? Where do I see evidence of hard work? What about their daily lives reminds me of my own? Next time you travel abroad, try to do the more challenging reflection of first identifying with the people you visit. Save the easy list of differences for later, and in the moment press into your shared identity as image-bearers of God. Look for the things that make them distinctively human and consider how much in common that gives you. Consider it a tool in your toolbelt that will help you when you’re tempted to slide into the “zoo exhibit” experience.
3. Ask questions.
It sounds simple, but sometimes making conversation when we’re in a new context doesn’t feel obvious. These people are so different from us, we can’t think of anything to say. And maybe we’re a little nervous about saying the wrong thing or stumbling over the language barrier. It’s tempting to disengage. We don’t understand what’s happening anyway, so we start to daydream about other things or just politely wait to be ushered to the next activity.
One of the best ways you can esteem people as people is to interact with them. Striking up a conversation humanizes your visit and begins the hard work of relationship-building. It communicates that you care about them individually and aren’t just content to peer around and leave. Consider researching polite conversation topics in that culture before your trip. Ask the local leader before your visit to give you some ideas of questions that your hosts might enjoy answering. And if they’re Christians, ask about how they came to faith or where they see God at work in their lives. Whether you’re able to communicate yourself or you ask through a translator, asking questions shows that you see them, you recognize them as important and interesting, and you care about their well-being.
A Better Way Forward
It’s important to remember that we are guests in the communities we visit. We don't have the privileges of family members or neighbors. Even if you've traveled to this country a dozen times, you don't pay bills or suffer through monsoon season or worry about the next election cycle. But you're being welcomed in by people who do, so embrace your identity as their guest and act appropriately.
A helpful question to ask is, “Would I be comfortable with a stranger or acquaintance doing this in my home or neighborhood?” We serve others best when we aren’t concerned with getting the photo or having the cultural experience, but are willing to “miss the moment” in favor of treating people with the respect we’d like to receive ourselves. By humbly limiting ourselves for the sake of another, we honor the dignity of the people in front of us and the God in whose image they’re made.