I recently read this article as well as a particularly poignant piece in The Onion that fairly skewered young people who go to developing nations so that they can add a flock of impoverished youth to their Facebook profile pictures.
I immediately thought of the picture that is currently on the front page of Uncharted International’s website of myself and a young Burmese woman smiling for the camera (my camera) that I’m reasonably sure was my Facebook profile picture at some point. The aforementioned articles and their authors would perhaps presume that my trip (or trips) to Myanmar had little to no lasting impact on the social welfare of the people there and that the main reason I went was to illustrate to my friends and family back home, that I am an enthusiastic champion of the poor and disenfranchised. They would be mostly correct. And that’s okay.
Voluntourism may have little or no positive effects on the countries or people that the voluntourists visit, but it can (not in every case) contribute towards making the world a better place.
It creates awareness
As the author of the psmag.com piece points out, many organizations get an absurd amount of free marketing materials produced by the Voluntourists who go on their trips. It’s certainly not by accident. The Facebook reach of the average college senior is impressive, and it costs the organization $0 in marketing to tell all of their Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instragram followers all about the work (at least superficially) they are doing in the country.
It creates activists
My good friend who I managed to guilt into picking me up at the Nashville airport at midnight was subjected to a three-hour-car-ride-long monologue about my experience and (I hope) the history and culture of the Burmese people. Even six months later, any person who has had longer than a 15 minute conversation with me will undoubtedly have heard about some of the work Uncharted is doing in Myanmar.
I mention these with one caveat. It is possible to be a voluntourist and neither create awareness for the important work being done there nor become an activist for the causes related to the country you visited. If this is happens, then indeed voluntourism is a myopic and narcissistic experience. Even so, if the alternative for high school and college students is a 12 day whirlwind tour through Paris, Venice and Amsterdam (and I’ve been on one of those too), I think I’d rather have my kids be voluntourists any day.