Voluntourism explained in three incidents

I am curious about your POV still on that. You said i think in another post that you are from Haiti? How does someone showing up to voluntourist make you feel? I think that people would really appreciate your input and perspective. If you have time do you think you could explain a bit more about it? 🙂



Last night, while I was making my final Facebook crawl before bed, I came across this article in the Girls Who Travel group. The title-7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip To Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on “Service Trips”- was intentionally incendiary and as I scrolled down the comments, I expected the usual faux outrage / defensiveness / not-my-experience types of explanations.

I’m not usually one to start Facebook discussions, especially with people I don’t, because for the most part, people have their minds made up from the initial comment. But certain topics have a 100% chance of eliciting a response from me, and as I learned, voluntourism is one of them.

An hour later, the commenter who asked the above question, and I had reached a sort of impasse. I sort of understood what she was saying, and I think she sort of understood what I was saying, but at some point we just were not getting across to each other. And while I enjoyed the back and forth (especially the fact that she kept pushing me to explain my pov), I did not expect anything more to come from the conversation. I mentally wished here the best and hoped that one day she could sort of see where I was coming from.

This morning, on the same thread she posted the following:

I am curious about your POV still on that. You said i think in another post that you are from Haiti? How does someone showing up to voluntourist make you feel? I think that people would really appreciate your input and perspective. If you have time do you think you could explain a bit more about it? 🙂

While this is something I’ve thought about and struggled with, it’s pretty hard to put into words exactly how it feels to be on the receiving end of voluntourism. I could pick any one aspect, discuss it for hours and still feel some level of frustration. So I’ve decided to use specific experiences that affected me deeply.



1. Photographs. When I first went to Haiti after the earthquake, I was shocked. Everything was completely different from how I had left it 12 years before. On the one hand, I had so many vibrant memories from my childhood in Haiti, but on the other hand, everything there had evolved. Yes the country was somewhat in shambles, but also, people had grown up, families created and for the most part nothing was as I remembered it. So my first desire was to photograph everything as they were in that moment.

The houses to me were gorgeous with their different shades of pink and blue and orange. So different from the sameness that Americans can expect to see in their everyday. I loved how exciting the streets were with random animals at time walking around and street vendors who seemed to have anything you could possibly want in a single moment.

On one of these occasions, while I was taking pictures of the things I was seeing, a group of people suddenly got mad at me. They started to grumble loudly. “No, no” my cousin explained. She’s taking pictures of the houses.” And they settled down.

I looked at my cousin in surprise. “Why were they so mad?” He explained to me that the people thought I was taking pictures of them. “Even so,” I asked, “why did that make them so mad?”

“Because,” he explained, “these people aren’t living their lives for your pictures.”

I was the tourist in that scenario, completely oblivious to the people living their lives, while I took my photographs.



2. The experience. I specifically remember an occasion where I was at the airport in Haiti. I don’t remember if I was just arriving or heading back to the US, but at the same time I was there, there was a group of white tourists, in a truck. They had clearly just arrived. Their pale skin was shocking, even to me, under Haiti’s bright sun. There were a couple of adults, though mostly teens and preteens, talking excitedly, full of innocence or optimism. At one point, I remember observing the scene curiously. ‘What are they thinking?’ I wondered. I noticed a few looking our way, observing me as I observed them.

They have no idea I can understand them, I realized. They have no idea what I know or what I think. They’ve come here with the preconceived notion of “saving” me, or “helping” my people for a couple of days, but they have no idea who we are and what we’re capable of.

From the tourists’ point of views, my criticism may have been unfair. They wanted to help. They wanted to do good, but what I was seeing, that they weren’t, is that their wanting to help came from a place of benevolence.

They would go back to their churches and their communities after couple of weeks, talk about all of the good that they had done in the orphanages, how nice and genteel the Haitian people were, and how gracious, but never about how proud or fiercely stubborn, how cunning and how contradictory.

The experience was simply for the benefit of the Haitians; it was a one-way relationship, where they gave and got to experience that and to revel in how generous they were.

They were there to do good and they would do their good for the poor Haitian people and leave. In an odd sense of rebellion, I decided, I won’t let them know that I speak English. If they try to speak to me I won’t let them know that I’m from the US. Let them judge me with the same eyes. And as they drove by, I lifted my chin and stared them down until their smiles faltered. This country is not for their experience.


3. Complex. The last incident that really struck me while in Haiti is one I’ve gone over in my head. I generally have a very positive experience of cross-border adoptions. In creating families, I don’t think race or nationality and ever really be a barrier, when there’s love and care in the relationship. But at one point during my trip, I met a while family who had adopted a black Haitian girl. The girl didn’t talk much and may have been introverter or shy or just not in the mood. The mother, however, talked a lot.

I noticed that she talked about her daughter and the adoption experience. It could be that she was very passionate about the topic, but after a while, it seemed, rather, that she was very proud. I think she was adopting or had adopted another Haitian child and talked about that as well. She was doing her part. She was doing good.

I remember my eyes shifting back and forth between the woman and her daughter as she discussed the girl in the third person. ‘Was she used to this?’ I wondered of the daughter. Not knowing the woman, it could have been just her personality.

But in that context, it came off very differently. Did the girl feel that she had been rescued?

There’s no doubt that her parents gave her a better life, but as kid, do you want to think of your parent as your savior? What kind of pressure does that add to your life- to never want to disappoint, to always have to be grateful, and to always be reminded?


All three of these experiences evoke different feelings. But the one that stands out most is pride, followed by anger. Even now, I still have that touch  rebellion in me that wants to confront each situation directly. Stop taking pictures, stop summarizing me, stop saving me. Just come- you as you are, me as I am- and let’s get to know each other.

I know you want to help, and I might want you to help. But first, no matter our different circumstances, we are equal. Let’s both consent and let’s start from there. I also have something to offer to you; so let’s consider that as well.

This is one reaction to voluntourism. Of course there are many others, some that contradict each other. But the same commenter raised the issue of consent last night.

In a lot of these interactions with voluntourists, there seems to be a lack of consent. I’ve described it as one-way, or not respecting, but it’s just to describe the feeling that you’re being acted upon, that you are some device for someone else’s wants.

I touched upon a similar conclusion in a separate post about a similar tone associated with donations. Basically, your decision to give does not mean that the other person wants to receive your gift.

Maybe volunteers want to do good and help people, but that decision to act should be made in collaboration with the people they want to help.

This post ended up being over 5x longer than I intended and at least 3x longer than what I normally write, but I wanted to give my response the space to grow and evolve.

Facebook commenter who shall not be names, I hope you stuck through it. Please let me know if you agree / disagree and where. I enjoyed our dialogue and hope to continue engaging in similarly thought-provoking dialogue. My opinions aren’t set in stone.





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