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Voluntourism and the Problem with Good Intentions

photograph of African children posing with white volunteers

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In the past few months alone, the global tourism industry has lost a staggering 320 billion dollars, making it just one of many industries to suffer from the pandemic. Most nations are no longer accepting the few American tourists still interested in international travel, rendering American passports “useless” in the words of one critic. Global tourism will have to evolve in the coming years to address health concerns and growing economic disparity, which is why many within the industry see this state of uncertainty as the perfect moment for reform. In particular, some are questioning the future of one of the most contentious sectors of modern global tourism, the “voluntourism” industry.

Voluntourism, a word usually used with derision, combines “volunteer” and “tourism” to describe privileged travelers who visit the so-called Third World and derive personal fulfillment from short-term volunteer work. College students taking a gap year, missionaries, and well-to-do middle-aged couples travel across the globe to build houses, schools, and orphanages for impoverished natives, either for the sake of pleasure or to pad out their CV. A 2008 study estimated that over 1.6 million people incorporate volunteer work into their vacations every year. The popularity of this practice explains why it’s so financially lucrative for religious organizations and charities; the same study found that the voluntourism industry generates nearly 2 billion dollars annually, making up a sizable chunk of overall global tourism.

But as many have pointed out, voluntourism often creates more problems than it solves. In an article for The Guardian, Tina Rosenberg explains how many nations have continued to rely on orphanages (despite their proven inefficiency when compared to foster care systems) simply because there is money to be made off of well-intentioned tourists who wish to volunteer in them. Furthermore, the majority of voluntourists are completely unqualified to perform construction work or care for orphaned children, which ends up creating more unpaid work for locals. Rosenberg also explains how local economies suffer from this practice:

 “Many organisations offer volunteers the chance to dig wells, build schools and do other construction projects in poor villages. It’s easy to understand why it’s done this way: if a charity hired locals for its unskilled work, it would be spending money. If it uses volunteers who pay to be there, it’s raising money. But the last thing a Guatemalan highland village needs is imported unskilled labour. People are desperate for jobs. Public works serve the community better and last longer when locals do them. Besides, long-term change happens when people can solve their own problems, rather than having things done for them.”

Overall, it’s often more expensive to fly out Western tourists and provide them with an “authentic” and emotionally charged experience than it would be to pay local laborers.

And yet, the emotional needs of tourists tend to come first. As Rafia Zakaria points out, “deliberate embrace of poverty and its discomforts signals superiority of character” for well-off voluntourists, who fondly look back on the sweltering heat and squalid living conditions they endured for the sake of helping others. This embrace of discomfort partly stems from white guilt, though some have pointed out that wealthy non-Western countries also participate in voluntourism. It has been labeled a new iteration of colonialism, perhaps with good reason. Colonial subjects have historically been positioned as an abject Other in need of Western paternalism, a dynamic that is reproduced in the modern voluntourism industry. As Cori Jakubiak points out in The Romance of Crossing Borders, voluntourism is essentially an attempt at buying emotional intimacy, which often overshadows the structural inequality that makes such intimacy possible. While voluntourism ostensibly taps into our most charitable impulses, in many ways it can be viewed as a moral deflection. Nakaria notes that

“Typically other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve than those of one’s own society. In this context, the decontextualized hunger and homelessness in Haiti, Cambodia or Vietnam is an easy moral choice. Unlike the problems of other societies, the failing inner city schools in Chicago or the haplessness of those living on the fringes in Detroit is connected to larger political narratives. In simple terms, the lack of knowledge of other cultures makes them easier to help.”

At the same time, it seems wrong to completely reject qualified and genuinely well-intentioned travelers who wish to alleviate human suffering. Good intentions may not redeem the harm caused by the industry, but they also shouldn’t be dismissed as just the vestiges of colonialism. If properly educated on structural inequality, many voluntourists could actually help the communities they visit instead of perpetuate pre-existing problems. Furthermore, one could argue that most forms of volunteer work, whether domestic or abroad, contain some of the worst aspects of voluntourism. Wealthy Americans volunteer to work with the poor and needy at home, and however good their intentions are, they are perfectly capable of reproducing structures of power and privilege within those interactions.

Some see COVID as an opportunity to reform the voluntourism industry and weed out the useless or corrupt organizations, as a recent report for the World Economic Forum proposes. The most important thing moving forward is that we re-assess the needs of disenfranchised communities and adjust the practices of NGOs accordingly. There is a difference between building a school house and reforming educational policies, a fact which all charitable tourists should keep in mind before going abroad.

The Slave Bible: Editing the Word of God

Photograph of Slave Bible showing the edited Exodus passage

D.C. is home to a variety of museums, but the latest addition, the Museum of the Bible, is a little different from the rest.

The one-year-old museum is home to a variety of exhibits – ancient Cannanite pottery, artifacts from Jerusalem and some experiences tailored toward families. There is an indoor “ride” experience that flies you over religious symbolism in DC and an immersive theatre that tells Bible stories in a unique way.

But the newest exhibit is an “artifact in focus”, a display built around a single item on loan from Fisk University. Unsurprisingly, the artifact is a Bible. Perhaps more surprisingly, it’s not a Bible belonging to anyone famous. Instead, it’s a version from the early 1800s that was used to convert slaves in the Caribbean.

Except this “Slave Bible”, as it is called, has been selectively edited to remove all references that paint slavery in a bad light, while including those that seem to justify or glorify slavery. These decisions were made in order to discourage a slave uprising.

For example, according to Seth Pollinger, director of museum curatorial at the Museum of the Bible, almost all of the book of Exodus is omitted from the Slave Bible. Moses telling Pharaoh “Let my people go” is cut, while the story of the Ten Commandments remains. The entire book of Revelations was also cut because the story as seen as one of “overcoming” which  might inspire some slaves to take action against their masters. 90 percent of the Old Testament and nearly half of the New Testament is missing from the Slave Bible.

Meanwhile, verses that encourage slaves to be obedient remain. So do stories like that of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery.

According to Pollinger, only two other copies of this Bible exist that we know of. It also was not used in the United States.

It is important to note that this Bible was only used by a select group of missionaries. Most missionaries were teaching slaves about Christianity with complete Bibles.

A large portion of the exhibit is dedicated to visitors’ responses. The Museum seems to understand that this lesser-known artifact could lead to all sorts of discussions on religion, history and race.

Interpretations of religious texts have routinely been used to oppress groups throughout history and are still an important tool for various political movements throughout the world. It seems that as long as there is religion, there will be political controversy surrounding it.

But this Slave Bible goes a step deeper than that. It is not simply the case that some missionaries used Bibles to justify slavery. They explicitly omitted portions of the book that would pose problems for the existing political order in the Americas at the time. With this act, there is a sort of subconscious acknowledgement that supporters of all types of slavery would find little moral justification in scripture, and that the book features several messages of liberation and stories of slaves seeking freedom.

The cognitive dissonance is fascinating. These missionaries’ literal mission, if you will, was to preach about faith from a book that featured messages they did not agree with. If the Bible is intended to be the word of God, what is the justification for editing it?

It is clear here that the missionaries’ aims were tied up with the economic and political goals of those overseeing slaves in the Caribbean. By aligning themselves with a despicable social system, missionaries had to ignore the word of God to spread Christianity.

Is Christianity still Christian if over half the Bible is omitted? This is a theological question but also an ethical one. For while slaves were being taught from one version of the Bible, their masters were aware of another.

Slaves mistakenly thought that by learning from this book, they were sharing knowledge and a religious identity with their masters that helped explain why they were slaves. While it should come as no surprise that people practicing slavery would lie to those they are subjugating, it is easy to imagine it never crossing the minds of the slaves who thought they were learning from well-meaning missionaries. This was their first brush with the religion and they were being duped.

History is full of highly questionable religious motivations for political and societal wrongs, but actions as blatantly hypocritical as these can still come as a surprise. It reminds us of the unfortunate power of cherry-picking, especially when it comes to religious texts. While some verses may seem to provide justification for an action, others may seem to condemn it. This is why it is important to keep religious texts intact, so that their message cannot be blatantly misconstrued by acts of omission.

Even without editing, the Bible has been used to justify slavery, segregation, homophobia, and countless other systems and ideologies meant to exclude or oppress groups of people. It has, of course, inspired countless people to engage in acts of kindness as well. While Americans pride themselves on the country’s freedom of religion, personal religious attitudes will still influence political persuasions, and thus, policymaking. It is important to remember that freedom of religion doesn’t mean that the Bible has had no bearing on our politics. It is an integral part of the history of the Americas and remains influential to this day. It is still used to form moral frameworks and to frame ethical questions. Our interpretations may differ, but as the story of the Slave Bible has shown, religious texts can be used as tools of power – for good or for evil.