On Mandela's birthday, questions about 'voluntourists' in Africa

Do brief, high-priced volunteer service programs in tough places actually help the needy? 

Ben Curtis/AP
Well-wishers carry a large banner of Nelson Mandela as they march up and down outside the gates of the Mediclinic Heart Hospital where former South African President Nelson Mandela is being treated in Pretoria, South Africa Thursday, July 18, 2013. South Africa celebrated Nelson Mandela's 95th birthday on Thursday, a milestone capped by news that the former president's health was improving.

The vigil in South Africa for Nelson Mandela during his hospital stay took a turn Thursday as the nation rallied to celebrate his 95th birthday. 

Since 2009, when the United Nations officially designated July 18 “Mandela Day,” millions in South Africa and around the world have marked the occasion by performing 67 minutes of volunteer work – one for each year the statesman and anti-apartheid activist spent in the public service.

But as South Africans head out today to build houses and serve food to the poor, run school fundraisers and visit nursing homes, they are joined by another type of volunteer that has recently become ubiquitous across much of the developing world: so-called “voluntourists.”

They are exactly what the word sounds like – tourists who do volunteer work. They have also become a contemporary flash-point in a debate that’s raged on the continent since the 1600s: What role should Westerners play in Africa, anyway?

About 300,000 Americans visit South Africa each year, according to the South African government, and though the exact number who travel to volunteer is not known, some 10 percent say they are visiting for a purpose other than vacation, business, or visiting friends and family. A recent survey found that South Africa was among the world’s most popular destinations for volunteer travelers.

But the privilege doesn’t come cheap. A four-week program in Cape Town’s townships with tour operator Cross Cultural Solutions, for instance, runs $4200, and a 10-day “fair trade safari” with a short program of service work from Elevate Destinations will set participants back $5650 each.

“Around the recession particularly we saw tourists starting to look at their core values as people and as travelers and really redefine what value means to them,” says Dominique Callimanopulos, the president and founder of Elevate, which is based in Boston. “People want to invest in trips abroad that aren’t just sitting on a beach, that engage with local communities – even if it’s only for a short time.”

Indeed, American interest in international volunteering seems to have peaked just as the US economy cratered. More than a million Americans traveled abroad to do service work in 2008, according to data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, the highest figure in the last decade. Some 877,000 Americans participated in international service projects in 2012. 

Those volunteers tend to be predominantly white, educated, and religious, Census data shows. Nearly half the Americans who do service work abroad go with a religious organization, and three-quarters have at least some college education. Nearly 90 percent are white, and most spend four or fewer weeks in their volunteer placements.

Less easily quantified are their intentions, but tour operators say international volunteers frequently express a desire to “give back” and understand life in the world’s poor corners, while also experiencing the same sense of adventure and culture shock that bring millions to places like South Africa each year.  

But for some observers, the idea that Western tourists can benefit local communities on a two-week vacation is downright cringe-worthy.

“Ask yourself how we might react if Ghana or Senegal or Kenya sent us its unqualified, inexperienced, untrained 20-somethings to teach in our schools,” says Kathryn Mathers, a Duke University anthropologist who studies American travelers in Africa. “It would be clear to us that this was a problem – for the students whose education is being outsourced to unqualified people and for the teachers whose qualifications we’re saying are worthless. The argument should be just as obvious when we send unqualified, inexperienced, untrained 20-somehing Americans to Africa.”

Foreign volunteers in South Africa strain the resources of local NGOs and institutions, says Dr. Mathers (who is herself South African), forcing them to babysit foreigners with little cultural or linguistic know-how instead of focusing on their own work. She says such groups would be far better served if volunteers would forego their expensive service safaris and instead give money to help fund the “boring, unsexy” elements of non-profit work often overlooked by volunteers and donor groups alike – keeping the lights on, the printer stocked, and the gas tank full.

Positive intentions, she points out, shouldn’t be mistaken for positive outcomes.

Take the example of volunteer projects in South Africa’s AIDS orphanages – a popular destination for Westerners who have watched from afar as the disease cut a fearsome swath of death and economic devastation across the region over the past 25 years.

Far from benefiting orphans, research shows a constant revolving door of volunteers in orphanages can create a vicious cycle of short-term attachment and loss for these children.

“Repeated disruptions in attachment are extremely disturbing for young children,” reported a 2010 study on so-called AIDS orphan tourism. “Ultimately, children who have experienced early adversity require a non-threatening, stable world, not one where visitors awaken hopes that are dashed again after a few weeks.”

For many who work in South Africa’s voluntourism sector, however, the notion that short-term volunteer work is inherently unhelpful is too simplistic a view.

Sure, many South African NGOs would like to recruit a full team of local staff and volunteers, and to work only with people who can commit years of their lives to the organization, according to Ed Scott, co-director of AVIVA-South Africa, which organizes service trips. But practically speaking, “they just can’t,” he says.

Many NGOs don’t have the needed money, he says. They ask his organization to send them volunteers to take up support roles that take the strain off paid staff.

“Short term volunteers can be really useful,” says Mandy Weschta, who runs Volunteer in South Africa, a Christian service organization. However, she notes, “Americans must be under the supervision of South Africans” when doing volunteer work. “Without a structure and proper leaders it’s pointless to have them,” she says.

And whether for good or bad, foreign volunteers bring with them an undeniable clout, raising the profile of different charities and benevolent organizations that may have been toiling in obscurity for years.

Ms. Callimanopulos, of Elevate, says her volunteers frequently maintain connections to organizations they volunteered with once they return home, sending them money or returning for further service trips.

Mathers, the anthropologist, says the charity work of international volunteers in South Africa comes from a positive human impulse – to give time and resources to those who have less. But, she says, individuals must recognize that often the biggest beneficiaries of their charity are themselves.

“We’re not actually changing the systems that create the poverty, the disadvantage, the bad schools, and I think that’s what we’ve forgotten when we volunteer in places like South Africa,” she says. “We think that if we go there that we’re changing something and it’s enough. It’s not.” 

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