International Aid, Voluntourism, and You

Hello, Friends! Just a quick little thing today about International Aid, Voluntourism, and You, where You is defined as an Australian of comparative affluence.

Come on a journey with me, Australia.

This fantastic article in New Matilda has been doing the rounds this morning: We Took Part In An Australian Aid Program. It Was More About Helping Your Country Than Ours. I sort of wish this wasn’t the title, which I think, given it’s in New Matilda, sort of makes it sound like it’s about Australians being really giving to other countries. It is not! It is by advocates for traditional landowners in Vanuatu Aminio David and Anita Temkon. The You here is Australia.

Aid is not a benevolent gesture of charity, as these Australian NGOs would have you believe. Australia disproportionately benefits from carving out a space for its own companies to benefit, its markets to benefit and for you – the people of Australia.

The assumption that was at the heart of this course is that those who have studied us from outside are somehow more knowledgeable about who we are and what we need that we could ever be. We were surprised to see that there are foreigners who consider themselves ‘experts’ on our culture and wondered why it was that they didn’t just seek out our ideas and opinions. The paternalism of this view is at the heart of the idea of development and it is hard not to see it as racist.

It IS racism! It’s colonialism and imperialism, too! Hooray!

(Not hooray)

We had our reservations about what Australia could teach us about valuing culture and nature but welcomed the opportunity to further our ability to protect what is important to us.

Throughout the three-week course it became clear that this was part of a sustained effort through the use of the Australian aid program to place a monetary value on our culture, our land, and our traditions. Where we understood the reference to value as inherent and often immeasurable importance we quickly saw that DFAT meant the term to indicate a monetary figure.

GROSS. Go read the whole article. It’s not too long and it’s really good, particularly if you’ve not had much experience in the way Australia gives aid.

Flippancy aside, a lot of my personal focus in aid is on individuals, because I’ve been involved with those individuals. The source of that aid work and the reason for the money in that aid work is, as with everything, even more significant than those way deluded but well-meaning individuals going off and voluntouring.

Coincidentally, there’s a free event at Uni Melb in two weeks: Dispelling the White Knight Complex: Debating the point of international volunteering.

Who should attend?

Don’t miss this if you’re (a) interested in different modalities of development, (b) working in the development sector – in the field or headquarters, (c) an academic or policy advisor or (d) curious about the effects of international volunteering. You’ll leave with new ideas, valuable resources and a healthy dose of post-colonial guilt.

Well, I mean, you might, but I won’t. I’ll be going anyway – I could stand to learn more about the wider decision-making apparatus of International Aid, the better to undermine it and yell about it.

(Research indicates that at least one of these panel members is not white, which is nice)


As always, when going to do good in the world, please consider who is aiding you, why you’re doing it, why you’re there. Questions always accepted; please understand that yelling might occur.

Further Reading:

52 signs you shouldn’t become an aid worker

2 thoughts on “International Aid, Voluntourism, and You

  1. This post perfectly encapsulates that skepticism I have always had about international aid and volunteering, but could never articulate myself. Thank you for writing this!

  2. Brisvegan

    People might also be interested in Kate van Doore’s work on voluntourism leading to child trafficking for “orphanages” full of trafficked children with living families, eg

    Disclosure: She is a work colleague of mine and also puts her money where her research is, as she also works with a charity that helps to reunite paper orphan kids with their families. I’m sharing her work because I think it is amazing.

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