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Voluntourism and the Versatility of Capitalism

In December 2017, the Australian Parliamentary Committee on Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade published a report titled ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’, in which orphanage tourism was recommended to be included within the definition of modern slavery. The report revealed the dark relationship between child trafficking and young westerners with big hearts and deep pockets looking for a meaningful holiday.

With the voluntourism industry estimated to be worth $2.6 billion, it would require a certain degree of naïveté to believe that the problems that voluntourism packages were designed to mitigate against were not artificially created or prolonged to supple this guilt-free milk cow of all its high margin goodness. The free market is too ingenious to rise above exploitation of the very problems it has created by turning children into products.

This capitalisation of children was captured brilliantly in a campaign to raise awareness of orphanage trafficking, in which dark-skinned children were encaged for the viewing pleasure of white tourists. However, the voluntourism companies themselves advertise their services with images not too dissimilar – a huddle of smiling, cheerful yet clearly impoverished children surrounding a young westerner. There is surely no greater illustration of the globalised triumvirate of poverty, white privilege, and exploitation than this.

While we can welcome the changing of attitudes to voluntourism in orphanages and legal reform, it is necessary to go deeper into the socio-economic conditions that lead people to pay hefty sums just to volunteer.

Western millennials are faced with a dilemma of how to interpret the current state of global inequality. They can either accept their privilege and recognise its relationship to the subjugation of others or simply deny its existence and claim that any advantages one has are truly earned. Some even go so far as to claim that being a white male is now a disadvantage.

Whether accepting or denying privilege, both sides tend to conflate recognition of privilege with the need to bear guilt. This is where voluntourism comes in. Voluntourism is a product that offers redemption for those who wish to reconcile with their white guilt, for those who seek redemption from the original sin of colonialism – the sins of our imperial fathers.

Slovenian philosopher Žižek argued that when we purchase coffee from Starbucks we are choosing to spend a little bit more because we are buying into ‘coffee karma’. As consumers, we are able to quash any feelings of guilt that may come with enjoying all the luxuries and comforts of the developed world.

Our thoughts are then with the farm labourers who, exploited by large conglomerates and the IMF, toil away to get us our coffee beans. We enjoy our coffee whilst huddled over a device assembled by workers on the brink of suicide, made from parts dug out of the earth by enslaved African children.

It is those very same children the consumer feels compelled to aid, as they recognise that they have a tiny role to play in that child’s suffering.

Voluntourism also sells karma, but with an added dimension that ingeniously links aspirations and ambitions from two vastly unequal economic backgrounds. Nepal is particularly afflicted by the huge rise in orphanage voluntourism and child trafficking. Parents are blinded by the promise of a brighter future by traffickers who claim the children are being sent to a better school. Parents believe this can one day provide the opportunity for their children to attend a foreign university; the appeal of climbing the ladder out of desperate poverty is too enticing to reject.

Across the other side of the world, our morally-conscious, newly graduated consumer – their minds enriched with the deep complexities and injustices of modern society, yet lacking in any meaningful work experience – is unable to even unearth the very bottom of the career ladder. Then, the voluntourism package appears. It offers a chance to enrich this consumer’s CV with a unique experience that showcases their adaptability, social-awareness, independence, and appetite for a challenge; the very buzzwords needed to land that very first unpaid internship.

And so, once again our young western consumer becomes an unwitting exacerbator in the proliferation of child slavery and sees the realisation of Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch, where one pays for the privilege of working.

Voluntourism is filling a gap in the market, a gap caused by the inflation of higher education; a bachelor’s degree barely registers as a minimum, a master’s degree is not much better without relevant experience. As anything that is both hard to come by and useful, experience naturally becomes a precious commodity.

In Nepal, Cambodia, and numerous other countries afflicted by orphanage tourism, basic education is the precious commodity. However what is truly for sale is tragedy and misery. In the end, capitalism is selling its injustices back into its own system, recycling inequity and thus flaunting its versatility.

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