Guest Blog: The ethics of voluntourism

This week’s blog has been submitted by Amy Lyall, one of our previous volunteers, who is currently studying Journalism. In her article, Amy reflects on her African Adventure in Ghana, and discusses the ethics of volunteer travel with our Founder and Director, Dan.

“The purpose of volunteering is to generate positive change for both the volunteer and the host project, so a strong set of guiding principles and values must remain at the heart of the mission.” – Dan Mew, African Adventures’ Founder and Director

The eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd forced numerous individuals and industries to reflect on the way that they handle issues of race, diversity and privilege. In September 2020, pressure from this movement led Comic Relief to announce that it would stop sending celebrities to Africa to make promotional films after being criticised for reinforcing ‘white saviourism’.

The term ‘white saviourism’ refers to white people who aid people of colour in a context which could be considered self-serving. It is a concept which is often seen alongside the term ‘voluntourism’. This is an industry which offers travellers, typically young people, the chance to volunteer in foreign communities.

Following these social developments, I took a moment to reflect on my own experience in 2017 as an African Adventures volunteer in Ghana. I contacted Dan Mew, Director of African Adventures, to gain a deeper insight into the intentions of voluntourism – a term which he said should not necessarily have negative connotations:

Volunteering allows visitors to gain an understanding of a community that a tour simply wouldn’t be able to do. If volunteers and tourism can be used ethically to support positive community change, then I believe it should be celebrated.

African Adventures’ trips give volunteers the opportunity to learn about their host community.

Throughout the eight days I spent in Ghana, our group supported positive community change by volunteering at local schools as teaching assistants and construction workers, and by offering donations to our hosts and a nearby hospital. However, I was eager to discover Dan’s reasoning for offering short-stay trips, considering the arguments surrounding the emotional impact this can have on the children in host countries:

Studies actually show that children are at greater risk of emotional distress when a volunteer becomes the primary care-giver, which is one of many reasons why we don’t support orphanages. Our volunteers can take on the role of a teaching assistant. Whilst they can (and do) create strong relationships with pupils, they are never the primary adult carer in the school, let alone their home life, so the risk of indirectly causing significant emotional distress or attachment disorders is low.

According to the Community Life Survey 2019/20, 53% of respondents noted having work commitments as the most common barrier for formal volunteering. So, how do short-term trips impact on long-term project goals?

In terms of the more practical programmes we run, such as building projects, we are actually able to carry out more work because of our relatively short trips, not less. This is because more volunteers can take a short break from their commitments back home – whether work, study or family – than those who are in a position to commit for a longer stint.”

Open communication and giving the local project leaders control over decision-making is crucial for an ethical approach. Rejecting the view that individuals are simply objects of charity helps fight against the notion of ‘white saviourism’. Dan highlighted that African Adventures ‘puts the needs of the project first’. He added:

We do not tell our partner communities what they should do or how they should develop. Our partner projects tell us what support they need to achieve their goals, and we recruit volunteers from the UK to help us fulfill those requests. We are very clear about our approach when we talk to volunteers before they sign up for our trips and before they travel.

In addition to this, cultural exchange was strongly integrated into my volunteer experience: Ewe dialect lessons, discussions of Ghanaian marriage and funeral customs, participating in a church service, drumming workshops, market visits, a regional schools tournament, traditional dancing and more!

Most memorable was a visit to the ruins of Fort Prinzenstein, a former Danish slave fort which was sold to Britain in 1850. Our guide led us through the slaves’ cells, the master’s quarters, and the torture chamber – where gouges covered the walls, marking the prisoners’ efforts to scratch their way to freedom. The ‘point of no return’ marked the last few feet of Ghanaian sand before slaves boarded ships to the Caribbean.

Amy learnt about the tortuous history of the slave trade during her trip with a visit to a former slave fort.

This immersive insight into Ghana’s colonial history and Britain’s role in the slave trade was a reminder that our ancestors actions continue to reverberate today: socially, politically and economically.Evidence of trading docks, plantation owners and tobacco lords can still be found in many cities across the UK.

Following the social amplification of Black history, I asked Dan whether he thinks volunteer travel companies have a duty to discuss these themes with their volunteers:

Each organisation is different, so I don’t think seeking a ‘perfect’ way of tackling such broad, deep social issues should necessarily be the goal, but it is important that organisations take responsibility for doing what they think is right for the people they work with.

The vast majority of our volunteers are young adults who have grown up in diverse communities and actively sought out the opportunities we offer, so they are likely to be more informed about BLM and the wider missions than they are often given credit for.

After reflecting on the ways in which my trip was faithful to its promise of providing ameaningful volunteer experience, it became clear that African Adventures has ethical volunteering and cultural exchange at its corethrough meaningful communication with host projects and the promotion of cultural and historical education.

Finally, despite Africa having proven relatively resilient to covid-19, I was keen to discover how the host projects have been affected by the pandemic, considering not only the loss of volunteers, but also that minority groups are more vulnerable to the virus.

“Schools have been closed, businesses have been shut and the wider economic beneficiaries that our work helps to generate – local accommodation owners, transport providers, food suppliers – have also taken a hit. It has been extremely damaging, but it has also highlighted the importance of our work. Those who still think that voluntourism is a bad thing might just think again.”

A huge thank you to Amy for submitting her blog! If you have a blog you’d like to see featured on our website, please email info@african-adventures.co.uk.