“The Voluntourist” documentary: Gap yahs and good intentions

Recently I watched a talking heads documentary on voluntourists.

Not that one.

It’s easy to think that most volunteers are like the “gap yah” guy: ignorant, unshakingly convinced by their own do-gooding, and constantly taking exploitative photos with locals for their next Facebook update.

A photo of a woman giving a homeless man a bottle of water. The photo has been set as her cover photo on Facebook.
Why would you do this? And who agreed to take this photo?

The Voluntourist is a series of interviews with volunteers and NGO workers that filmmaker Chloé met while travelling in South East Asia. Many of the volunteers are working in orphanages: a form of volunteering that is condemned by research into child psychology. Volunteers are told they will be helping children, when in reality the short, shallow interactions with foreign volunteers affect children’s emotional development and can lead to mental disorders. In the UK and most of the global north orphanages have been all but phased out in favour of foster care, yet the flow of volunteers into orphanages is halting this progress in the global south.

You can watch the film on YouTube:

The volunteers in the film have varying degrees of self-awareness and self-doubt about their work. One talks enthusiastically about her desire to work with children, only to frown a moment later and say how hard it is for them to get attached to new volunteers each week. One says “We were far more of a hindrance than a help… We all felt really patronised, [like the organisers were saying] ‘Let them feel like they’re contributing to the world.'”

The film doesn’t mock the volunteers for the situation they find themselves in, but it does serve as a warning. The interviews are a great illustration of how crushing it can be to get to a new country and start volunteering, only to feel trapped in a role that’s ineffective or even damaging.

Most of the voluntourists I’ve met genuinely want to help… Apart from maybe that one guy who used volunteering as a ticket to snowboarding, and that one woman who stopped showing up to volunteer since it was below her level of experience (really). The vast majority of people I’ve met had good intentions and followed them to the best of their ability. Like the volunteers in the video, they were all frustrated by volunteering at times. This is pretty much inevitable, for various reasons:

  • Dealing with red tape, language barriers, and cultural differences
  • Experiencing or witnessing injustice — potentially for the first time in a privileged life where even minor inconveniences are considered unacceptable
  • The simple fact that a small group of volunteers on placement for a few weeks/months can’t change the world

Picking a scheme which has good intentions to match your own is the best way to make the experience as productive as possible for you, and for the community you’re volunteering in. Chloé told me that after publishing her documentary she was contacted by a woman who had planned to volunteer in an orphanage, but had instead decided to look for a scheme that was sustainable and helpful long-term.

There are loads of exciting local projects out there. Voluntourism could be so much more effective if everyone spent a while researching which programmes are suited to their skills, and which actually make a positive impact, before getting on a plane.

A few places to start looking:

Grassroots Volunteering

True Travellers

Volunteer South America