Panel helps students recognize impacts of overseas “voluntourism”

Should all volunteer activities that exist around the world really be called volunteering? The term “voluntourism” is casting doubt on the concept of volunteering today and questioning the way that institutions are “helping” countries, many of them within Africa. The event, “Voluntourism in Africa: Critiques, Complexities, and Alternative,” presented by UBC’s International Relations Student Association (IRSA), Africa Awareness Initiative and Africa Business Club, considered what actions and approaches people should take in terms of volunteering.

“When we started organizing the event, what we really wanted to show students is how voluntourism is perpetuated in universities. We felt that by having all of these panelists, they will provide the students with more information on how to combat this,” said Kamal Mudher, the co-president of the UBC Africa Business Club.

During the panel discussion, four speakers provided the audience with an abundance of eye-opening information.

Panelists first discussed how voluntourism is an economic activity. Many organizations are for social enterprise, meaning that they intend to make a profit. While many of these institutions work with charity organizations and do give donations, they are first and foremost a business.

Dr. Kofi Gbolonyo — who teaches African music at UBC — raised awareness about the fact that people of all ages participate in voluntourism. “Voluntourism is not just about the young people. Some professionals do [it too.]” Gbolonyo argued that when educated adults support this system, the impact can be massive.

Mentioning the voluntourism activities that exist in some UBC programs which send students overseas, a student who attended the event, Steven Zhang, asked about UBC’s responsibility to eliminate these problematic programs.

One panelist explained that making radical changes within an established organization is difficult, but students can decide not to participate and instead continue to learn and spread knowledge about the topic.

UBC Africa Awareness Initiative president Xiluva Hill commented that “ ... It's important for students to think about their impact on the world. … We also engage with developing communities, alleging that we are helping them, so it is good that all UBC students think critically about these things.”

Katja Sluga, an executive in IRSA, strongly emphasized the importance of education on this topic. She hoped this event would be a place where students who had already participated in voluntourism could get a clear view of what their contribution may have been.

“I think having more and more events on Africa is definitely important, and having people who are educated and have a right to speak on these topics — either from Africa or [knowledgeable] on this topic — is really really important.”