Over the years, I’ve heard a multitude of critiques leveled at global volunteer organizations, also known as voluntourism. Some make claims that it attracts narcissists keen on acquiring the social capital that white-saviour imagery affords; others recognize that voluntourists are on the whole the most unqualified people their organizations can legally send abroad to do development work. While largely true, these critiques only skim the surface of an ongoing and centuries-long story that constitutes Canada’s relationship with the “developing” world.
When we consider a problem like global volunteering, we must ask why the countries visited are struggling. Do they struggle because they are slower or less capable than we are? Or is global poverty largely the result of asymmetrical socioeconomic relationships between them and the “developed” world? If we look at Canada’s economic role internationally, we’re a leading investor in global resource extraction, especially mining operations that transfer enormous volumes of capital to corporate investors and make negligible returns to workers and supplying countries.
Extraction is often accompanied by the forcible displacement of communities, the destruction of ecosystems, the poisoning of water sources and the murder of protesters opposed to projects. Canada obstructs policy changes that might curb this looting by signing Foreign Investor Protection Agreements as well as documents like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
So what does this all have to with a bunch of charitable students? After all, voluntourists are not as such directly associated with any level of government and are rarely investors themselves. The answer lies at the origin of the voluntourist impetus – not “goodwill,” but an industry. Voluntourism is a $2-billion business that capitalizes on altruism to rake in members and expand profits for investors. Their programs make tremendous progress in the way of lining resumes and alleviating the guilt one might feel for having so much at the expense of so many. More importantly, they make students feel useful and good. One would be forgiven to consider that non-profit organizations are a less egregious option, but the fact remains that all voluntourism operates not on the explicit recognition or handling of underlying causes of “underdevelopment,” but the implicit acceptance of their perpetuity.
Considering this organizing principle, we are also confronted with the problem that as voluntourism does not deal with real problems in practice, it also obscures those problems in the discourse surrounding them. The act of engaging in voluntourism repeats to students, their families and the public the old refrain in which we characterize the global poor not as active subjects, but as passive objects. It reminds us that we get to determine the origin, treatment and outcomes of poverty, and insulates from public understanding those who are affected the most by neocolonial violence and do the most to shed light on the real issues – mainly, black and Indigenous peoples.
This phenomenon is so prevalent and so useful to business interests that one of the Canadian Conservative Party’s main axioms in foreign policy making is the framing of “developing” countries as freeloaders to the Canadian coffer as opposed to the exploited producers they are.
If we truly want to make our efforts count toward helping those who struggle abroad, our engagement must take the shape of actively recognizing and challenging the institutions and narratives driving those struggles – beginning with the removal of our participation with organizations that fundamentally abet these racialized structures. If we fail to do so, our altruism can be co-opted by repression. As Sara Ahmed writes, “anti-racism may even provide the conditions for a new discourse of white pride.”