When I signed up to volunteer at an orphanage in Africa, I pictured myself somewhere in the Serengeti, dressed in Banana Republic. I had always wanted to be one of those people concerned with world affairs and after declaring anthropology as my major, I opted to add some humanitarian travels to my resume. Arriving in the slums of Nairobi, the summer after my first year in college, I was utterly unprepared to be standing face-to-face with absolute, abject poverty: over 300 children squeezed into a crumbling building; hungry bodies sleeping on a cement floor in urine-soaked clothes. I had hoped to be changed by encounters with poverty. I wanted the profound. I wanted to be the girl at a dinner party who the hostess points to and says: "and she worked in Africa."
Don't be embarrassed for me. My heart was good. And therein lies the essence of voluntourism: this trip was about me, my desire for a life-changing experience, my heart (and ego). I spent that summer volunteering with orphaned children, and while they seemed to like me, I could not help but wonder if I had helped at all.
I sought advice from my esteemed professor (whom I wanted desperately to impress). I was nervous but expectant imagining what she would say when I told her I had spent my summer in Kenya (by this point I had stopped calling Kenya "Africa"). Would she invite me out for lunch to hear about my journey? Would she ask me to co-author her next book? I sat in the chair opposite her desk and braced myself for her total admiration. "That sounds like a very meaningful summer." My pride quickly turned to shame as she inquired, "Your life has changed, but what has changed in the children's lives, as a result of your trip?" While at the time I failed to grasp the implications of her questions, I suspected we weren't going to be trading diet tips over lattes anytime soon.
I spent a lot of time that year wondering if I had unintentionally exploited the children I'd traveled so far to meet. Did I help the little ones learn the days of the week and the older kids practice their written composition? Yes. Had my trip contributed in any significant way to a more just, safe life for them? No. I was a 19-year-old, providing unskilled labor, to deeply traumatized children, for a very short of amount of time. The price of my plane ticket would have been better spent on the salary of Kenyan teacher, a source of continuity for children who deserve it the most.
I know what you are thinking: whether or not your niece spends her summer at an orphanage in Kenya has nothing to do with Kenya's unemployment rate. Why not encourage young people to volunteer in poor countries and learn about the world; it's better than having them spend their Spring Break playing beer pong in Miami. Agreed, but we have to stop making this about your niece, and start making it about vulnerable children who did not sign on to be the playmates of volunteers, too many of whom fail to align their objectives with the real needs of the poor.
Besides, what if the desire to travel to needy orphanages and the conditions of needy orphanages are related -- in a supply and demand sense -- more than we realize? Before volunteering in a developing country it's important to consider the effect the trip will or will not have on the long-term injustices facing orphaned children. Will you be volunteering within a structure addressing these issues in a sustainable way, in solidarity with local leadership, or will you be extending your safari for personal gain?
At Flying Kites, the Children's Home in Kenya to which I have dedicated my career, we have replaced a volunteer program with an ambassador program. The program includes an intensive application process and requires months of fundraising prior to traveling, to ensure that the people who join us in Kenya are committed to the cause, and not simply the experience. For these reasons, we now attract a lifeline of supporters who recognize that the most valuable gifts they can bring to organizations like ours are in the time spent advocating and fundraising; meeting the children is a small part of a much greater commitment towards addressing the real needs of orphaned children. Still, people argue that the standards for this program are too demanding. I tend to agree, but I have learned that, at the intersection of the well-intentioned and the downright poor, the stakes are always higher.