A Debate That Gives: Volunteerism VS. Voluntourism

“I want to be American…just like you, Miss Shelby. “

The 8 year old girl I tutored looked up at me, eyes wide, and proceeded to imitate my accent.

“I want to talk like you. I wish I was from America,” she continued. “I told my Mum I want to move to America….will you teach me to be American?”

My stomach dropped. I searched for the right words to respond as the young girl continued to beg the phrase, “….I wish I was American…”

“Well, I like the way you talk best. No one else in the whole world has a voice like yours, it’s really special. ” I said casually, as I flipped to the next page of the workbook.  Gently, I took control of the conversation, changed the topic, and proceeded to redirect my student towards the English coursework at hand.

During the Fall term, I volunteered at a local church’s community center. The after school program I played a minor role in supporting was on a drop-in basis; kids 7-18 yrs old received a hot meal, tutoring support services, and opportunity for recreational activity free of charge.

As an American abroad, volunteering with children is a balancing act.

In a short matter of time, I’ve received a crash course in maneuvering this balance. While my experience as an international volunteer is stark in comparison to friends and acquaintances who serve as full time, certified teachers across the world, most can likely attest to the claim that children watch and learn. Impressionable and often enthusiastic, kids envision a future through visual means, cultivating ambition embodied by those who stand before them.

It is in this setting that I’ve come face to face with a long running debate that exists in the service world:

“Volunteering VS. Voluntourism”

I’m not entirely sure who spearheaded the great debate of the “how to give,” as to somehow suggest there is a “right” or “wrong” means of serving others.  Nonetheless, behind computer screens and spitefully strung words lie critics of good intent,  whom argue  Americans abroad do more harm than good, often embodying imperialistic ways as volunteers. Some suggest we act as “white savior barbies” who package self interest as selflessness, interested only in building a CV. Full blown, academic research has been dedicated to the analysis of “voluntourism” and it’s impact on communities, particularly those in the 3rd world.

Talk is the only verb I know which doesn’t boast direct correlation to action. It’s much easier to criticize something than it is to actually do something. Whether these critics of global volunteerism have any experience serving abroad themselves is a question in itself, often unveiled in the depth of the individual claims at stake….

Nonetheless, these critical stereotypes continue to circulate with gusto. And on a small scale, the repercussion is my lived reality. 

As I applied for volunteer positions in the UK, and proceeded to charter the waters of working with British youth,  underlying perceptions of “voluntourism” came to light. While I recognize where rationality can lie within the argument (“white savior barbie” critic has a point when she notes we need not refer to Africa as though it’s a country, whilst waving our smartphones in the faces of 3rd world children to capture a selfie….fair play to the Instagram hater….) I often find myself actively attempting to convince the charity organizations I pursue that I’m not just another American here for the semester, clocking  a few volunteer hours in between weekend getaways. I’ve found that email response is more likely when I list myself as a student at the University of Sussex, rather than an American on international exchange.

The “Volunteerism VS. Voluntourism” debate indirectly functions as “Voluntourism VS. Shelbs.” And as this uphill battle against pre-conceived notions of “voluntourism” wages, I’ve come to find that the on-going debate is nothing more than an attempt define something that a doesn’t actually exist. We’ve bent over backwards trying to shape a phrase that lacks tangible foundation.

The “voluntourist” is non-existant.

Simply put, it’s a volunteer whom hasn’t received comprehensive, cross-cultural training.

My training? Still pending, I must admit. It’s continuous observation, and the product of relationships; friends, course mates, co-workers, and teammates of English decent who serve as primary, constant examples of British custom and culture in my everyday life. I did not arrive here with a large group of Americans, and in turn, most the company I keep is English. The unique quirks and ins-and outs of British culture have grown on me. While I’m still very much American, I now identify with these customs in new light. Nowhere else in the world lives, works, and breathes the way the Brits do.

A year ago, I likely would have entertained my wide-eyed students with tales of American culture and dialect. And while I still share these experiences with youth, due to my experiences with British culture, it’s in a different fashion. Tell me your story, and I’ll tell you mine, I challenge my young students once their coursework is completed. I choose to counteract each question youth ask about American culture with a question about the English culture (even if I already know the answer 😉 )  As American volunteers, we walk a fine line between sharing cross-cultural perspective, and allowing youth to cultivate authentic national identity. Personally, my aim is to inform and inspire my students to learn more about the world around them, while also encouraging personal growth.

America has the resources, educational tools, and task force to produce significant impact on a global scale. In developed and under developed countries, alike.

It would be static, arguably ignorant, to disregard this window of opportunity. We undoubtedly have something to bring to the global table; the international impact the US government program, “Let Girls Learn,” has had in just one year is one example of many testimonies to this claim.

But in my limited experience, I’ve found that the extent to which this impact is made lies not in motivation, but methodology.

The wide-eyed, 8 year old girl eager to engage in American culture is simultaneously exploring and forming her own British identity. Recognizing this was the first of many small steps taken to squander pre-conceived notions of “voluntourism,” and address a debate which highlights the vital role volunteer training and education plays in service abroad.

While it may occupy an Instagram caption at times, an act of love have no label.

Service is seldom free from positive impact, subjectivity aside.



05.16.16 // Brighton Beach, UK






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