Ending Humanitarian Douchery: Can Voluntourism Become #worthyofimitation?

endhumanitariandoucheryWell, I must admit that I didn’t see this one coming. Nope, totally missed the tea leaves that foreshadowed this contrivance of social media-driven, voluntourism call-out.

Earlier this week, The Guardian brought our attention to the latest (yet another) branded campaign around voluntourism – one to #endhumantariandouchery (#mendnotend, #thinkchildsafe, being other examples). Undoubtedly, Millennials are taking us on a self-deprecating journey through our own collective, short-sighted, ethno-global altruism. Pippa Biddle most recently relaunched this party on the heels of the work of Daniela Papi, Ian Birrell, and numerous others, and it has been a steamroller ever since.

What do we make of all of this?!?

The Social Media Anti-Voluntourism “Bully” Pulpit

I grew up in the Southeastern part of the United States. As a youth, I made regular appearances in Baptist and Methodist churches on Sunday mornings. The ministers would regularly stand in front of the church-goers and talk about heathens and people who were going to Hell for failing to believe!

“Bible thumping” and the “bully pulpit” were the terms often uttered as descriptors of this prime directive delivered by certain ministers. It wasn’t so much the message as much as it was the vehemence with which the message was communicated.

Social media has taken the bully pulpit metaphor (did Theodore Roosevelt really bring this term to life?), augmented it, and given it an infusion of global peer pressure. Social media does not merely serve as a platform for voicing a specific agenda; social media has become a place to utilize one’s social media cache and “bully” individuals into believing that what they are doing is actually harmful, racist, colonialist, and, expletive-deleted, wrong!

One family of five voluntourists recently published a blog post regarding a series of tweets that spoke to this very experience. A member of the Twitterati gave “Mel” (Melissa) a reason to ink the following:

“Recently, I had my first social media ‘heated discussion’.  A follower (let’s call them Fran*) offered some advice to travel responsibly by not voluntouring, because “most volunteering overseas is irresponsible”. She implied that voluntourists are motivated by, and would likely only positively effect, their own emotional state (i.e.: feeling good about themselves).  She had some genuine concerns about the commercial voluntourism operators and seemed well-versed in some of the problems with international development efforts.  But, she lumped all voluntourism together saying that any promotion of the concept is unethical and promotes child abuse.  I thought that was a bit extreme, to say the least.

*I want to protect the identity of this person as much as I’m able, because I would never condone anyone trying to argue with another person on my behalf, nor bullying nor any on-line or real life nastiness.”

Is what we think about voluntourism and how we proselytize our thoughts, beliefs, and convictions to others about it becoming worse than voluntourism itself?

Defusing Anti-Voluntourism Bullying

Whether we are “ending humanitarian douchery” or claiming that little white girls and boys are muddying up the development waters of our planet, it seems that, for the most part, the majority of social media critics are interested in bringing to an end the irresponsible elements surrounding voluntourism. (Kudos to all!) What is slightly intimidating about social media, however, is the speed and breadth with which beliefs can spread across the internet. Campaigns are launched in milliseconds and viral appreciation can take the ramblings of a neophyte and transform them into the irrefutable facts of the moment.

Does this make the opinion a fact? The contents of that opinion factual? Not at all. What it does do, however, is provide such an individual with a sense of knowing, a sense of perceived awareness regarding a topic. Compounding this are the individuals who read these words and begin to propagate them as though they represent the “gospel” (can you see where this is going?) on voluntourism. The “Bully Pulpit,” in essence, has gone virtual; cyberspace is the new church and followers are the new congregations. Missionaries of this anti-voluntourism gospel are insistent and incessant when it comes to spreading the word. They deliver anti-voluntourism propaganda as a new breed of proselytes, never questioning whether they even know what voluntourism is. They are believers in the crusade and, therefore, will be saved from ever being a voluntourist (read: heathen).

One of the challenges of our day is to stand up to any social media-driven anti-voluntourism bullying, just as we would stand up to harmful practices being perpetrated by the most ignorant of voluntourism operators. The world fields a significant collection of unregulated and/or poorly-crafted voluntourism programs – no one denies this – and “ending humanitarian douchery” is a provocative approach to eliminating such practices. On the other hand, the world fields some remarkable voluntourism programs (and some amazing human beings who indeed see themselves as voluntourists) that are worthy of our respect and the highest form of flattery – our imitation. Are we doing enough through social media to recognize these programs (and individuals)?

worthyofimitation1Final Thoughts…

Perhaps we need a social media campaign with this hashtag: #worthyofimitation

I have been at this long enough, come into contact with enough programs and enough individuals, to unequivocally state that there are some truly remarkable approaches to voluntourism (programs AND people). Yes, I realize that the negativity, the sarcasm, the snarky is what lifts the social media likes and re-tweets, but isn’t there a little something about that which seems counter-intuitive? If one is attempting to bring value into existence, is it likewise necessary to dismember something (or someone) else in the process?

#worthyofimitation definitely requires individuals to do their homework, to really take a hard, long look at what they are honoring and respecting about voluntourism via a small grassroots organization in Cambodia, or a large operation in Ghana – any size, anywhere, across the globe. (It takes an equal, perhaps greater, amount of courage to recognize an individual or family traveling and serving thus.) A significant part of what most individuals are reviewing is the impact on the host community, the impact on participants, the impact on the hosting organizations – how are each of these stakeholders being influenced by the very existence of a voluntourism program? What we may not be prepared to do is to evaluate these programs with an awareness that maybe, just maybe, the most important impact for host communities is an economic one, NOT a socially benevolent one. Are we prepared to face that reality? And is this impact sufficient enough to warrant imitation?

Nobody wants to be a douchebag, especially a humanitarian douchebag, right?!? And nobody wants to recommend something that perpetuates the creation thereof. The question of the day, then, is this: “How many of us are actually willing to step forward and use our social media cache to identify voluntourism programs AND voluntourists #worthyofimitation?

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