It just doesn’t read right, look right or feel right. Linking a holiday in one of Kenya’s top resorts with doing voluntary work with ‘kids in need’ locally while teaching them hygiene, tree planting, tailoring and construction, is clearly questionable on so, so many levels.
Do we really believe that Kenyans are devoid of such skills and that Maltese or European tourists have them in abundance? The suspension of all our critical faculties would be necessary to believe that Kenyan ‘kids in need’ require lessons in hygiene and tree planting – ‘no expertise needed, just a willingness to teach’.
How insulting and arrogant does it get? It smacks of the worst of the western ‘white saviour complex’, something that remains central to the problem rather than the solution. Yet, this is what’s on offer to Maltese tourists as discussed by Philip Leone Ganado.
It is so easy to criticise ‘voluntourism’ (now a multi-million dollar industry) – addressing issues of need, inequality, poverty and exclusion as an ‘added value’ element in tourism (no matter how well intentioned or motivated) is simply not credible.
It frequently does damage, normally ignores local voices, is largely designed to assuage our guilt and make us feel good having ‘done our bit’. It routinely means fundraising (often at very high levels – up to €5,000+ plus your own costs); a slice of the action for a travel company and a fair amount of blackmail as family, friends and relations are badgered to support the ‘life changing experience’.
And, sadly, most of the NGOs involved are ‘western ones’ not local ones; that in itself should tell us something.
Undertaking voluntary work is a life-enhancing and ‘value-full’ activity – if undertaken with some thought and care and if based genuinely on discussion and reciprocity.
Volunteering is self-fulfilling and is something we should all do every day
We are used to the argument that being a volunteer is a selfless act; rewards will come ‘in the next life’ and that it is a part of charity. However, volunteering is self-fulfilling and is something we should all do every day (and not just when undertaking ‘charity’ work).
Serious voluntary work is part of the struggle for justice in the world and against the daily injustices around us (think migrant, women’s and disability rights for example).
Even though I hear the howls of protest, Malta is now part of the Rich World and this places considerable onus on us to use our wealth, our skills and our opportunities to challenge injustice and to offer alternatives.
If we want to acknowledge this and contribute to building a better world, we do not need to travel to Kenya or any other of Africa’s 50+ countries, we can begin to make a difference in hundreds of ways on a daily basis when we shop, consume, invest, travel, read, discuss as well as when we formally volunteer (think ethical consumption, fairtrade, recycling, waste, ethical investment etc).
There is little benefit, honesty and sincerity if we continue to make daily choices that hurt other people and then try to make amends by undertaking ‘generous charity work’.
Just to name one glaring example - there is a shocking and immoral ‘disconnect’ between helping ‘those in need’ in ‘Africa’ while either condoning, engaging in or staying silent on the hate filled agenda of too many ‘commentators’ on migration in Europe and in Malta. Perhaps you can volunteer to help build a serious conversation on Malta and migration?
By all means, let’s travel and have our eyes, ears and hearts opened, but let’s do so with the right degree of humility and honesty (‘we are going there to learn’).
Listening to others, especially the marginalised and excluded of our planet would be an excellent starting point. Doing good to others - often thousands of miles and worlds away - as distinct from doing harm, should not begin or end with an airline flight.
Potential life-changing experiences are everywhere to be found if we are open to seeing them and engaging with them. They should not become the ‘product’ of a multi-million dollar, self-indulgent industry.
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