Volunteering in Africa: white saviorism, orphanage tourism, aid dependency, and a safari

Volunteering in Africa - Experiencing the Globe

A few days of helping in an orphanage, refurbishing a school, or building water wells, followed by a big-5 safari. You aid those in need and then you have the trip of a lifetime. Win-win, right?
Well, no. It’s hard, as a westerner, to visit many of Africa’s countries without feeling a sense of guilt –guilt for our own privilege (privilege that comes from what our ancestors stole from former colonies), and for having the means to be there, as tourists, when so many of the locals are struggling to feed their children. That’s how ‘voluntourism’ was born.
But our good intentions are causing more damage than good, more so when analyzing how aid dependency is the root cause of many of Africa’s development problems. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and our desire to help is the perfect illustration. Let’s dive deeper into a reality that no one wants to see: the dark side of volunteering in Africa.

Work + Play –a perfect trip, right?

I don’t think there is one western person that has never heard about poverty in Africa. We’re constantly exposed to fundraisers and charity events, and we even hear from our governments how public policy needs to be developed to help those in need across the continent.

Civil wars, natural disasters, disease, corruption, and above all, leftovers from colonialism have shaped the many issues that the African continent faces. So, when people can help and are willing to do so, it has to be a good thing, right? Sadly, no.

The internet is flooded by announcements of kids in need, poor orphans without access to the bare minimum. Don’t get me wrong, in many places this is the reality. But those are the ones most tourists don’t even know exist or would not set foot on. Obscure countries like Burundi, or war-torn ones like Somalia. In the more mainstream destinations, those that are lucky enough to have a safari-worthy national park in the vicinity, like Tanzania, Zimbabwe, or Madagascar, have a different story to tell.

And so unscrupulous people saw a business opportunity –let’s gather a bunch of children, make them look filthy and sad, take some pictures, and use them as bait to get hefty donations. Since the donors want the photo op with the kids, let’s also overcharge them for the chance to volunteer, and then send them for a week of safari as ‘compensation’ for their efforts. After all, “what are the best Africa volunteer programs to include a safari?” is what people are googling.

Westerners with deep pockets (at least from the perspective of the locals), filled with guilt and determined by their ‘white savior’ complex, but that also want to have an instagrammable vacation, became the perfect target. Each of them will be leaving thousands and thousands of dollars behind. And they will never know that the kids are not even real orphans…

When I first heard of this, I could not believe my ears. Who could be so heartless as to come up with such a plan? Regrettably, these kinds of stories became more and more normal with only a bit of research. Even more so, when taking to locals that see how neighbors are taking advantage of every foreigner that’s naïve enough.

If you don’t believe that reality can be as harsh as I’m painting it, look at just one example. Al Jazeera reported that out of $3,000 paid by volunteers, the projects only received $9.

Don’t feel bad if that’s you. It’s really easy to be a prey. The scams are designed to play with our emotions. “Make a true impact”, they offer, while promoting their “affordable, safe and trusted programs, starting at $25/day”. There’s a reason why among volunteer travel, ‘orphanage volunteering’ has become the most popular. Tourists with the best intentions, but zero understanding of international development and aid, created the perfect market for shady tour operators. As Al Jazeera stated it: “children are being kept in deliberate poverty to encourage ongoing donations from volunteers”.

Africa: 1 continent, 54 countries

To fully understand the situation, we need to start with the basics. I always feel both disheartened and amused at the obliviousness when I hear people talking about Africa, as if it was just one big country, barely with some nuances in its geography.

The generalizations of “Africa is poor”, “the kids in Africa are starving”, or “the governments in Africa are corrupt” leave no space for even beginning to understand the problems that need improvement. Not putting the huge diversity of the continent right and center will never allow us to get a better insight into what’s happening in the region.

So, let’s start with the very fundamentals. It might feel like a stretch for some that I have to clarify something this obvious, but it’s a revelation for many. The continent of Africa is divided into 54 fully recognized nations. The borders of these countries were mostly defined by their former occupying colonial powers. Which means that not only there are big differences between countries, but there are huge ones within each of them. Peoples that lived together for millennia found themselves separated from their lands because of an imaginary land that some white men established. Others that never thought of sharing space are now forced to coexist.

These drawings on a map were initially made to establish who would rule each area: Germany, Spain, Italy, France, the UK, Portugal, and Belgium claim parts on what was called the ‘Scramble for Africa’ at the end of the nineteenth century. But Europe’s newfound irrelevance in the world stage after World War II opened a window for the African nations to gain back control.

The end of European empires created an illusion of independence, but the harm of the lines drawn was permanently done. Some countries made sense as nations, and have resources to thrive (ranging from mineral extraction to tourism). Others make no sense and were condemned even before they claimed sovereignty.

RELATED POST → Does your place of birth determine who you are? A reflection on tourism, migration, and globalization

Colonialism lives on: corruption is a state of mind

Most countries were unprepared for governance. As Paul Kenyon brilliantly puts in in his book ‘Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa’, “the nations they inherited were coarsely mapped European constructs, with borders that took little account of age-old tribal rivalries”. This led to a deep sense of distrust of ‘others’, which led to a struggle for power, which inevitably led to corruption. Centuries of being ruled by foreign powers take a toll on the way people think.

The South African Bishop and Human Rights activist Desmond Tutu famously said “when the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land”. This quote sums up how colonialism shaped the mentality that has led to today’s problems. Corruption comes from the foreigners, the government followed suit, and people just replicated the example. 

The corruption is so ingrained, in fact, that the government doesn’t trust its own citizens. For example, the hefty entry fees in the national parks in several countries must be paid in USD through a credit card, so the cashiers won’t be able to get a cut.

I guess it’s full circle, because the people certainly doesn’t trust the government. 

Consequences of development: don’t believe the macroeconomics

This led to serious differences within the continent. Some countries are poor. Some are among the poorest on the planet. But there are several ones that are not. While the Seychelles, for example, has a GDP of over 20,000 USD per capita, Burundi’s doesn’t reach 300, according to the International Monetary Fund’s 2022 report.

Most countries will be found somewhere in between, but in several of them the concept of distribution of wealth is unheard of. Most of the resources are in the hands of the ruling party, and the country’s citizens live way under the poverty line. This is the situation in small dictatorships like Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea, and big powerhouses like Nigeria and Egypt.

We also need to take into account how we measure economic development. We’re so used to gage it through a western lens, that we forget about other realities. Especially when talking about ‘systemic poverty’, we must wonder under which standards. An indigenous tribe of hunter-gatherers that lives in the bush (which for sure seem poor from a western perspective), actually has the riches of a lifestyle that relies on natural resources that have been available to them for millennia. If they need any assistance today is because their ancestral lands are being taken, either for private interests or in the name of conservation. 

RELATED POST → Reflections from the Serengeti: the Masai, sustainability, and decolonizing conservation

White guilt = white saviorism

The west enslaved the people and pillaged the natural resources of almost every corner of the African continent, so now the natural guilt that follows any history lesson gets channeled into charity.

Even though what’s fair is to return and/or compensate for everything that was stolen, the white guilt is put to a halt by the need to be a hero. Enter white saviorism.

We’re not going to give back the treasures we took, even though symbolic yet relevant gestures like the return of the stolen objects that adorn many western museums would have a huge impact on regaining collective memories.

We won’t give up control of the companies that keep exploiting the resources. The revenues are making rich westerners even richer, while human right abuses and extreme low wages keep the locals poor.

We are not going to accept refugees nor migrants that look for better opportunities in western soil.

We won’t even apologize for all the unfathomable harm we have done.

But we will donate a bit, send our thoughts and prayers, and hope for the best.

We’ll transfer aid knowing that the countries that are receiving it have no set political infrastructure –no capable institutions and governance to handle and distribute the money. Knowing that most of it will go directly to pockets of the dictator or warlord in charge, or that it’ll start a conflict between different powers to get their hands on the money. Corruption and war have not only been fostered by aid money, aid money has bred them. As economist Peter Bauer argued, aid is a “form of taxing the poor in the west to enrich the new elites in former colonies”.

Arusha school kids, Tanzania - Experiencing the Globe
Arusha school kids, Tanzania - Experiencing the Globe
Arusha school kids, Tanzania - Experiencing the Globe

Hurting more than helping: aid dependency

The extent of the damage produced by aid is finely explained by Dambisa Moyo in her book ‘Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa’. She starts off by saying that “the 1970s were an exciting time to be African. Many of our nations had just achieved independence, and with that came a deep sense of dignity, self-respect and hope for the future”. Her upbringing in a developing Zambia filled her with optimism of what the continent could achieve. Sorrowfully, her views changed over time, witnessing the public policies that the developed world had towards Africa. From her seat at the World Bank, where she worked during the 1990’s, she could feel that her country continued to flounder in a seemingly never-ending cycle of corruption, disease, poverty, and aid-dependency.

The statistics don’t lie –“in the past fifty years, over US$1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa” Moyo states, only during the first decade of the 2000’s, she continues “on the back of Live 8, Make Poverty History, the Millennium Development Goals, the Millennium Challenge Account, the Africa Commission, and the 2005 G7 meeting (to name a few), millions of dollars each year have been raised in richer countries to support charities working for Africa”. She also recalls how Tony Blair, the UK’s Prime Minister of the time, at the 2001 Labour conference, remarked that ‘The State of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world’, and that the West should ‘provide more aid’.

“Aid has become part of the entertainment industry” and “a cultural commodity”. From the millions that governments and big international financial institutions have assigned to the few dollars that ordinary people donate, western consciences have been appeased, but African people is not better off.  In Moyo’s words: “across the globe the recipients of this aid are worse off; much worse off. Aid has helped make the poor poorer, and growth slower. Yet aid remains a centerpiece of today’s development policy and one of the biggest ideas of our time”.

What is it about Africa that holds it back, rendering it incapable of joining the rest of the globe in the twenty-first century, Moyo wonders. “The answer has its roots in aid” – “with official aid to the continent at 10% of public expenditure, and at least 13% of GDP for the average country, Africa’s continual aid-dependency throws up a host of other problems. Aid engenders laziness on the part of the African policymakers. This may in part explain why, among many African leaders, there prevails a kind of insouciance, a lack of urgency, in remedying Africa’s critical woes. Because aid flows are viewed (rightly so) as permanent income, policymakers have no incentive to look for other, better ways of financing their country’s longer-term development”, she concludes.

Volunteering in Africa, a trip of a lifetime

Ok, I admit that I’m taking a long road to get to my initial point. But public policy is a bigger scale reflection of what ‘normal citizens’ aim to. So let’s talk about the actions of common citizens. Those westerners that are not making the big governmental shots. The ones that feel genuinely guilty for the sins of their forefathers. Those that understand that their privilege comes from the resources that were stolen. The ones that vote for opening the borders. Those that will be able to sleep better at night knowing that a few bucks went to alleviate the developing world’s problems. Even the ones that want to go to these places to make a difference on the ground. Let’s talk about volunteering in Africa. 

Assistencialism versus equality

Assistencialism was defined by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire as “policies of financial or social assistance which attack symptoms, but not causes, of social ills”. Just to hammer it home, this is where we are. Monetary donations and even time volunteering is preventing a comprehensive agenda to secure equality.

A study conducted by a sociologist living in Mambo, a small town in the Usambara Mountains in Tanzania, revealed that local people see foreigners as government, so they expect help from them, as if it was a duty.

In my own experience, people ask for money, sponsorship for projects, and aid in general, as if they were entitled to it.

Because the dependency that aid promotes is now the norm. It created a habit of viewing foreigners as funds rather than people. As a friend of mine once put it, tourists are walking ATMs.

Pay to volunteer? The birth of ‘voluntourism’

Not too long ago volunteering was the simple act of people committing their time and skills to someone who needed them, free of charge. Slowly it started to swift towards a way for budget travelers to exchange work for lodging. But in the last decade or so it has grown into a booming travel niche. Operators now charge a fee, in general quite robust, to organize a volunteering trip.

Starting at $499/week, many sites make you an offer you can’t resist: “Volunteer in Africa and take it all in: the endless Savanna and lush jungles, leave no desires unfulfilled! Do you want to use your time and skills to volunteer in Africa? Options are plenty!”.

Not only we created a problem of dependency on aid for Africans, now we’re helping deceitful people get rich by supporting their voluntourism business.

As Daniela Papi beautifully said it on her TED Talk ‘What’s wrong with volunteer travel?’, “volunteer travel right now is offering really short-term solutions for complex problems. And yet we’re really disappointed when we’re not getting long-term development results”.

What’s worse, the main niche in voluntourism is working with children –with all the potential problems that brings.

Orphanage tourism

I cannot believe I just typed those words. Orphanage tourism –that is people participating in a volunteering program at orphanages abroad– has become the most booming niche in volunteering travel. While I understand the specific interest in working to help children, there’s immense evidence showing that this kind of aid is harming the very children it tries to help. 

Well-intentioned volunteers, donors, and tourists, without realizing it, are supporting –and even encouraging– an industry which profits by exploiting children. Most orphanages are not state-run, and many are unregistered and operating unlawfully. What’s more, the number of these facilities increases exponentially near tourist hotspots, where the kids are pressed to ask for donations or to perform a dance show as ‘thank you’ for the help received. The children are often kept malnourished and living in filth to evoke greater compassion.

The vacuum created by our desire to help, but to do it in our terms (which often translates into having a photo op to brag about our altruism), allowed for crooked people to start flourishing businesses. You could not believe the horror stories I’ve come across.

Studies show that around 80% of children growing up in these types of facilities have one or more living parents –that’s 4 out of 5 of the estimated 8 million children growing up in orphanages across the world today have at least one living parent (see this link for more stats). Can you imagine how those kids ended up in an orphanage so you can go “help” them?

Arusha school kids, Tanzania - Experiencing the Globe
Arusha school kids, Tanzania - Experiencing the Globe
Arusha school kids, Tanzania - Experiencing the Globe
Arusha school kids, Tanzania - Experiencing the Globe

Skill set: can you truly help?

Do you really think you can properly “support construction projects, do wildlife volunteering, or assist in nursing and medical projects”, as one website offers?

In an article published back in 2014, Pippa Biddle recalls a high school trip to build a library in an orphanage in Tanzania followed by a week-long safari:

“It turns out that I, a little white girl, am good at a lot of things. I am good at raising money, training volunteers, collecting items, coordinating programs, and telling stories. I am flexible, creative, and able to think on my feet. On paper I am, by most people’s standards, highly qualified to do international aid. But I shouldn’t be.
I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries. I am a white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying powerpoint) to a few thousand people and not much else.”

There’s not much to add to her words. We might want to be helpful, but we need to truly search our souls before we commit to do something that could make a bad situation worse.

The correct way to help

No one will judge a traveler for wanting to see the Big 5 in the Serengeti, or Lemurs in Madagascar, or gorillas in Uganda –all of them are part of my own bucket list– but there’s a way to mix work and play, to help and get to live through those experiences, without making things worse in the process.

The first thing in order to properly help is to remember that the aim is development and redistribution of wealth, not aid and assistencialism. Do proper research to make sure your money and/or time goes into the right hands.

How do I choose an organization to volunteer at or donate to?

Research for NGOs that have long-term plans –they need to work together with the locals to fully understand their needs, and develop a long standing strategy to fulfil them.

Be cautious with agencies that ask for payment for volunteering. It’s understandable that they will charge for organizing your accommodation, meals and transport, and even more so if you want a safari “add-on”, so don’t immediately rule them out, just make sure they are legit. Some agencies will charge you $25 per day while others take $5,000+ per week. Don’t be afraid to ask where every penny is going.

If you have a concrete set of skills that can be put into practice, that will be very welcome. If not, keep in mind that money goes much further in poorer countries. A thousand dollars can pay for a week-long trip of an unskilled volunteer – or it could pay the salary of a local teacher, nurse, or construction worker for a couple of months. Besides, in developing countries people are particularly desperate for jobs, imported unskilled labor is the last thing they need. 

If you want to see exactly where your money is going, Kiva is an amazing organization to back. 1.7 billion people around the world can’t access banks or other forms of financial services, yet it’s been proven that loans create a sense of accountability that aid cannot provide. To test this theory, in the 1970’s in Bangladesh the Grameen Bank was born. They would give small loans to people without any collateral, and trust they would return the money because that was the only option for their neighbors to eventually be able to ask for a loan too. To this day it has borrowed money to around 9 million people, and the bank jointly with its founder, Mahammas Yunus, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Kiva is replicating the model. But instead of operating as a bank, they provide the platform so we can crowdfund microloans, putting money directly in the hands of those in need.

What if I want to work to help children?

If you want to teach or care for children, make sure it’s not in an orphanage. Some governments are moving towards labeling orphanage tourism as child trafficking, banning it entirely. Instead, find organizations that enable children to live in a family setting, supporting community development, and confirm that they run long-term programs, with at least a month-long commitment required. Think about the attachment issues that these kids already have, so you don’t want to leave them after only a few days.

Also, make sure that you’ll be provided with sufficient training and guidance before and during the project. And be wary about places that won’t check your credentials before you interact with minors. Asking for a CV, criminal record, and references is the bare minimum.

Personally, I volunteered refurbishing a community center that works as a kindergarten in the outskirts of Arusha. Although my job, after fundraising some money, was to simply help with painting, I had direct contact with the kids. And no one asked me for any police record or qualifications of any sort to make sure the children were safe. In contrast, I volunteered for the state agency responsible for the protection of the rights of minors in my home country, Chile, and I had to jump through a million hoops before I could interact with the kids.

Volunteering in Arusha was a spur-of-the-moment thing, because I met the right people when I visited the city. It turned out to be a lovely experience, but objectively, not how it should have been carried out. I can vouch for the organizer to have the best intentions at heart, and I would encourage anyone to contact him if they want to help –send me a message for more details.

As for the photos I took, which are accompanying this article, I have the consent of the teachers, who got the consent of the parents, to publish them.

Arusha school kids, Tanzania - Experiencing the Globe

The former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said that “for many people in other parts of the world, the mention of Africa evokes images of civil unrest, war, poverty, disease and mounting social problems”, so it’s good that people have the desire to help. And although aid has had horrific consequences on the overall development of the continent, volunteering is nonetheless something valuable. Voluntourism is not as black or white as a perfect life-changing experience or a total scam. Good intentions can have amazing outcomes, if executed right. Just make sure you’re doing your part in ensuring it’s done right. And enjoy the safari!

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12 thoughts on “Volunteering in Africa: white saviorism, orphanage tourism, aid dependency, and a safari”

  1. Greetings, thanks for the informative article. Every single day, I see the results of the good intentions. In South Africa, preying on peoples feelings is big business for gangs, who put children out to beg at traffic lights. Forget Volunteering. The best solution is to create jobs and donate to local charities who do the good work by hiring locals. Go on holiday and stay with locals. Your money is pumped into the local economy, rather than multinationals. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Thats the need, not aid.

  2. What an interesting read, I think it’s so true that people don’t do sufficient research into what they’re signing up to! Love the point about asking where every penny goes.

  3. You highlight a problem many tourists never contemplate. I appreciate your insight and tips on how to volunteer in a responsible way and avoid the pitfalls that can be harmful to children.

  4. Very interesting post. I am actually about to go on a six-week mission with an international NGO to work with marginalized communities, carrying a lot of my personal costs, and have been wondering for a long time whether what I am doing is white saviourism. I decided to do this because I can provide concrete assistance and it’s a not a country/area one would normally go on holiday, and the project is run by a national branch of an international charitable organisation. So, on this side it’s all positives but I do think a lot about whether this is the best way to help.

  5. Crazy how I never thought of the damage our good intentions can create. You really hammered it home when you described a normal citizen… it felt like you had me in mind. I always slept better after donating what I can. And I’ve been dreaming of being able to spare the time to go volunteer to help the kids. I mean, investing in the next generation should be the answer! I feel so foolish now. Like the stereotypical naive westerner. I just wanted to let you know that your post made me see things differently, and for that I’m grateful. Especially for introducing me to Kiva.

  6. It goes without saying how great the post is, so I stopped by to tell you that your photos are fantastic! Were you able to share them with the parents?

  7. I’m not the kind that often leaves comments, but I think this posts deserves one. I’m still trying to process all the information, but I have to tell you that I’m completely rethinking how I’ll try to help in my upcoming trip to Kenya.

  8. Wow! I never, for a second, stopped to consider the “dark side” of volunteering. I mean, it seems so logical that only good things can come from donating your time and money. This was an absolute eye opener. Thank you so much for a brilliant piece.

  9. I always find your posts fascinating, but you outdid yourself. I’m in awe at how well researched this is. It’s pretty obvious that you’re a Human Rights lawyer, and that you truly care.

  10. Orphanage tourism sounds really horrible, but before reading this I would have thought that helping orphans was the right thing to do. Probably I would have been one of the oblivious tourists taking photos while the kids put up a dance show after our donations. It’s terrifying to think that good intentions are not enough. But I’m very grateful to have read this. Feels like I need to second guess everything now…

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