With the UN International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development having been celebrated just yesterday, the cynics that we are, delve deeper into the concept of volunteering that seem to be fuelling a thriving travel industry. To many sceptics, developing countries such as India represent nothing but a playground for volunteers from western countries. The same ones who, in response to some generation-X existential crisis, choose to spend their summers in poverty-struck areas as opposed to guiltily tanning away, with no ‘giving back’ to society.
Etienne Marot, a 29-year-old Mathematics teacher from Paris, lives in Colaba Causeway. A glance at the wannabe hippie and we are still not convinced why he calls teaching mathematics to children in Dharavi a ‘rewarding experience’. Hailing from a family of idealistic academics, Etienne, albeit with the intent of volunteering, ends up coming across as a patronising, benevolent giver. Can Etienne’s efforts be described as a remedy to poverty and illiteracy or is it another way for him to placate the guilt of privilege? A mere soul-searching experience in the land of snake charmers in the name of volunteering?
Not entirely. The reality of ‘voluntourism’, it seems, is highly nuanced. Etienne shies away from any compliment when we ask him whether he believes in the goodness of his efforts. The Parisian is not looking to ornament his resume and in fact, down plays the merit of his volunteering. Eventually looking to make Mumbai his home and “adopting one of these loving kids” as his own, he explains that the bond he has formed with some of these children is indescribable. “I am not here to denounce non-governmental organisations, but it is clear that their need to invest in the community with an effectiveness that is more often than not, questionable,” explains Etienne.
He is not the only one. There is a group of Scandinavian youngsters who believe, “Our efforts may not change an entire society but can at least “better the lives of the kids, one child at a time.” And while yes, they might seem like foreigners who are probably doing very little good, their teachings will definitely impact in some way or the other–may be they will be able to help take some of these kids off the streets one day.
Condescending or genuine? It most definitely highlights the fact that ‘voluntourism’ can now be referred to as an industry if we had to go by the thousands of volunteering possibilities that developing countries present to the rest of the world. A quick Google search and key words such as “taste of volunteering” and “luxury volunteering” pop up. Call it the creation of a travel industry, tapping into a ‘new-age’ market in the words of entrepreneurs or elaborating an illusory effect of their impact, the effort to have volunteers truly ‘invest’ (in every sense of the word) in emerging and developing societies is palpable.
Love it or hate it, it can now safely be said that ‘voluntourism’ is now very much a part of SoBo-hood.