Voluntourism Part 4: “Us” vs “Them”

Voluntourism Part 4: “Us” vs “Them”

The ol’ “Us Versus Them” theory is one of the oldest in the book…of Modern History and Politics anyway 🙂 If you do these subjects at university you are bound to come across this concept at one point (or in my case, almost every subject).

Humans tend to live in groups, thus tend to develop a sense of “we” or “us” – What forms and makes up this sense of “we” tends to be different for different groups – hello basics of “what is culture” 🙂

This is good for a sense of community, but when different groups come together, it can cause friction and fear (in addition to excitement and curiosity…but we humans are a paranoid bunch). These feelings can be summed up as “Us” fearing “Them” – sometimes also talked about as a fear of the “unknown other.”

Let’s skip a few steps (otherwise this post will be ridiculously long – if you want to see a future post go more in-depth on “us versus them”, let me know in the comments) and see how this applies to voluntourism.

The “Us” tends to be the people who are volunteering. The “Them” tends to be the people/communities being ‘helped’ by the volunteers.

One of the main promises of voluntourism adventures is that it will connect you with people from other cultures, break down stereotypes and it will ultimately help bonds to be built across cultures and countries (this is the basis for many other cross-cultural programs too, such as student exchanges and government based initiatives like young leadership exchanges).

However one of the arguments against voluntourism is that it ends up doing the opposite – in other words, it strengthens the “us versus them” mentality. Assumptions that may have been in the subconscious of a voluntourist are now played out in front of them. There is a suggestion that it can reinforce stereotypes, because often the deeper aspects of a culture aren’t investigated or experienced on a voluntourist program.

One story I read on this labelled it the ‘white saviour complex’ – that we like it when people think of us as heroes for helping them out. This article argued that the hero should be the local teacher, builder or parent. I think this is a fair point. However, if we all concentrated on helping our local communities, this may also lead to inward-looking groups that aren’t willing to reach out to other groups – we may become entirely self-focused, and this would in fact increase the Us versus Them situation.

Some also see voluntourism as cleaning up the mess of colonialism. However this may reinforce the perception that it’s the white people who have to come to the rescue – this perception could be in the minds of the volunteer or of those receiving the help. Either way, I think it’s unhelpful.

Another example of how an inappropriate relationship between the charity giver and receiver was explored by a lady through the lens of a camera  – particularly pertinent in the age of Facebook and Instagram. For example, photos of poor, isolated children imply that their community is uncaring or that they are incapable of caring for them…it invokes paternalistic attitudes of wanting to protect them – and clearly the source must come from outside, as the locals are inadequate. (She also mentions that these photos are self-made marketing for voluntourism). This again could lead to strengthening the divide between “us” and “them” – those who care and those who don’t – potentially dangerous and divisive.

She also questions the classic photo of the white person surrounded by a sea of children of a darker complexion – she is clearly self aware as she says she didn’t even know their names – and that in the act of taking the photo it actually prevented the engagement she could have had with the children – something that might build bonds of community and break down the us versus them scenario.

I find it a very fascinating perspective and I think the links between social media, self-image and volunteering could be a very interesting basis for someone’s thesis in the social sciences.

As for the “us versus them” theory, I can see how stereotypes of cultural factors that are at the tip of the iceberg might be reinforced e.g. Indians eat spicy food and are always late to appointments when the deeper aspects aren’t encountered e.g. that Indian tend towards polychronic time systems instead of monochronic. 

So I think it is therefore a challenge for people offering voluntourist activities to think about how they can ensure that participants are engaged with all aspects of a culture – not just the ones they see through their eyes. As this paper suggests, and I agree with, organisations should see cross-cultural understanding to be a goal to work towards in their programs, rather than as some naturally occurring default of stepping foot into another country.

What do you think? How could organisations running voluntourist programs do this?

Previous posts in the Voluntourism Series:
Voluntourism Part 3: Who benefits?
Voluntourism Part 2: Who? Why?
Voluntourism Part 1: What is it?


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