The aptly named website Humanitarians of Tinder lays bare a phenomena that most of us were already aware of. If you’ve got a photo of some volunteering you did, be sure to capitalise on its potential to bag that extra sexy someone by adding it to your Tinder profile and reaping the sexual rewards. For maximum impact, ensure your picture involves black children, the more happy they look to have been blessed with your presence the better. If you can make clear you’re in Africa by appropriating some kind of traditional ethnic garb all the better. Next thing you know, potential conquests will recognise you for the blessing you are to this world and the black children in it and you’ll bag yourself a hottie. Finally that week you spent building a school in Kenya was all worth it.
This is perhaps a little disingenuous, but it’s certainly the impression you get from scrolling through the (literally thousands) of these images that have been handily compiled by Humanitarians of Tinder. And while we should perhaps be pleased that there is apparently an inherent human attractiveness in being seen to do volunteer work or be a generally charitable human being, the alarming rise in bogus volunteer projects and genuinely damaging gap year ‘experiences’ shows that many of the Humanitarians of Tinder might genuinely have had a better impact on the world if they’d simply stayed at home.
The trouble with voluntourism is that if development was as simple as going to Malawi for two weeks and playing with some orphans, global inequality would have been solved a long time ago. But poverty is about structural inequality, a lack of access to adequate healthcare and family planning, food insecurity and conflict. Most voluntourists mean well, and genuinely want to enact lasting change, but Sophie, 18, from Liverpool can provide only the thing that exists in great abundance in the developing world: unskilled manpower. If Sophie is building a school in Thailand, no-one is paying a local unskilled labourer to do it. Wealthy white volunteers are quite literally paying to go to other countries and steal the local’s jobs. It would have been far better for Sophie to donate the money for her flight to an international development charity, and stay at home. But of course where then would Sophie have been able to get her hands on that all important Tinder selfie of her sat on a tiger?
I learnt this to my peril recently when I took part in the UK government’s International Citizen Service program, volunteering in Palestine for three months with a youth charity. And while I had an amazing time, met some incredible people (both locals and my fellow volunteers) and learned a huge amount about the occupation, the reality of the menial work I did was that it was of no great importance to anything. But of course this is what has to happen, because I have no real skills to offer. The best volunteering opportunities are for those that represent genuine skills shortages, especially doctors, but also lawyers or skilled labourers. Young twenty-somethings with degrees in religious studies are of no practical value.
With all the good intentions in the world, the problem is that voluntourists are often going for the incredible experience as much as they are going to lend their help, me included. This means ‘glamorous’ charity work that could easily be done by someone local gets snapped up for free in an instant, like playing with cute children or working in an elephant sanctuary, while much more important work that is far less interesting like office admin goes ignored. I was charged with running an inconsequential but perfectly harmless media project, but some ‘volunteer opportunities’ can be far more sinister. Many unscrupulous criminals in the developing world have seen the enormous cash-cow that naïve young people from the West can be, and the trade in paid-for volunteer experiences in bogus orphanages is booming. Perhaps the worst story I’ve ever heard was about a girl who paid £700 to take part in Brazilian conservation survey deep in the Amazon jungle, and helped carry the equipment, only to have it dawn on her halfway through that the men she was with were actually oil prospectors. The fear once she realised, tramping through the forest with two unscrupulous strangers for two days, must have been the embodiment of a living nightmare.
Humanitarians of Tinder embodies everything that is wrong with voluntourism; that it is short term, non-committal, and more concerned with the volunteer’s own experience (let alone the potential to use it to generate sexual capital) than the experience of those that are allegedly being helped. Worse still, it furthers a white saviour image that all ‘Africa’ needs is some unskilled white people to pop over for a bit and all their problems will be solved. But despite the many pitfalls, voluntourism doesn’t have to be inherently awful. Voluntourism can inspire the people who work on these projects to volunteer further, or forge a career in humanitarianism. Working in the West Bank certainly pushed me to campaign harder for an end to the occupation and against human rights violations perpetrated by the Israeli state. Doing proper research first and asking others about their experiences should always be the first port of call if you are planning to volunteer abroad. Remember: the longer a volunteer placement, the better; are children really benefiting from your skills as an English teacher if you will only be in their classroom for two weeks? And while the upfront costs of accommodation and food, as well your flights, should be covered by you, an organisation that charges £920 for a week working in an elephant orphanage is a profitable business, not a volunteer opportunity. Volunteers must research thoroughly the organisation they will be working for, and ensure that the time and effort they are giving represents a genuine need or skills shortage.
But please, whatever you do, keep the white saviour photos to yourself. They’re certainly not going to make me swipe right.