Poverty Safaries: The Problem with Service Trips

Sophie Vandervelde

Right off the bat: I am not condemning service. Not even a little bit. 

Doctors and teachers without borders? Keep up the good work.

Peace Corps? Don’t really know what you do, but keep doing it! 

Local philanthropic endeavors? [Expletive] yeah.

Villanova Day of Service? Starts too early in the day, but still does a lot of good. 

Instead, I’m talking about the thousands of dollars you spent on plane tickets to fly somewhere in South America or Africa to assuage your guilt. 

If I’m talking about you, please take a moment, pocket your White Savior Industrial Complex and hear me out. 

I tried to come up with several names for this article before one crawled out of the regions of my brain and threw itself at my feet. A few contenders, prior to this moment, were:

Why Your 7 Day Trip to Haiti Didn’t Change a Damn Thing. 

Service Trips, AKA the Photoshoot With Cute Kids.

Voluntourism: Please, Please, Just Go to Fiji Instead. 

Or, my personal favorite (suggested by a friend on my program): White Liberal Catharsis. 

But then inspiration struck from a conversation I had upon my arrival to Cape Town. 

Rewind a few months and cue a younger, naive Sophie Vandervelde sitting in orientation a few days after stepping onto the CPT tarmac.

The program I came here with told us, quite simply, that we needed to see the part of Cape Town that wasn’t all beaches and sunshine. Our director reminded us that a large majority of the people we met wouldn’t be from Cape Town proper. The people we meet in our classes, the professors giving lectures, the friends we make at bars and many others live in conditions many of us could never, or don’t want to, imagine. 

Now fast forward a few hours to our trip to a township called Langa. A township is defined as “a suburb or city of predominantly black occupation, formerly officially designated for black occupation by apartheid legislation.” (Some of you might be familiar with the term because Trevor Noah grew up in one right outside of Johannesburg.) 

Townships provide less than ideal living circumstances. Limited plumbing, electricity and space lead to cramped spaces, health problems, fires and crime. 

I walked up front with our tour guide, who had greeted us with enthusiasm, likely glad to bring in more revenue to the bustling community. When asked if he’d worked with our program before, he responded with an enthusiastic ‘yes’. He seemed to love that students came to study in the city, and he was even more appreciative that we took the time to visit his home. He was adamant that you haven’t seen Cape Town if you haven’t seen Langa. 

This did something to ease my protesting conscious, but not quite enough. I still needed to know if it was actually okay for people to come and take wide-eyed tours of a place people call home. 

He outlined the tenets of an acceptable tour: respect, good motives and empathy. 

I asked if it was common for people to not have those things, and he gave me an unimpressed look as he said, “Yes. The ones on the poverty safaris.” 


Poverty Safaris.

He explained how uncomfortable it made residents to have people waltzing around with their chunky cameras, snapping pictures of their children and even, on some occasions, taking them by their hands and leading them on their merry way with the rest of the tour. 

He expressed that when he’d first heard of those week-long service trips to impoverished areas in Africa, he’d been disheartened. 

“Why can’t that money they spend on plane tickets be put towards our children’s education?” our tour guide asked. See, they’re out here, following us and begging for money-” He gestured at the gaggle of children that had become the group’s shadow. “-when they should be in school learning math, or how to code. Useful life skills.” 

Obviously, I agreed. 

That moment was eye-opening in a lot of ways, and prompted me to do my research and ask anyone who was willing to answer about their take on the service trip versus the poverty safari.

Teju Cole said it best in a Twitter-rant-turned-essay: “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”

Cole then goes out to flesh out what seems to be the root cause and problem of our savior complex. 

“That is what led me to compare American sentimentality to a ‘wounded hippo.’ His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated ‘disasters.’ All he sees is hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.” 

In other words, we can’t see the forest because we’re too focused on the trees.

So without further ado, here’s my conclusion.

The naivete involved in convincing the self that a one, two or four week mission to a poverty-ridden country is going to change anything is nothing short of irresponsible. 

It doesn’t matter how much fundraising you do year round, or if you go back for a whole entire week every year! This trip qualifies as Voluntourism. 

I’ll admit here and now that I went on a 9-day service trip to the Dominican Republic in high school. I’d also like to assert that I regret it profusely, and frankly, am a bit embarrassed I participated in the first place. 

Let’s go over all the ways this trip was beneficial.

It was eye-opening. You saw things you’d only heard about before and were given some real perspective on what life is like in impoverished areas. Friendships were formed for life. Under the beating sun, with your hands entrenched in the earth as you worked So! Damn! Hard! to finish that irrigation system, you had conversations and created bonds that you’ll proudly tell your kids about. 

The hard work built character. Suddenly, you were faced with the reality that this is a lifestyle people live everyday. You woke up with the sun and worked until your muscles ached. 

Perspective, connections and character. All positive things, yes. 

But read those again, and ask, “who benefitted?”

(In case you missed it, the answer is: you.) 

Let’s go over all the ways this trip was detrimental to the community. 

1.) You know those photoshoots, the one where you surround yourself with adorable little local children and grin for the camera without a second thought as to “where are these kids parents?”

Yeah, they hate those. I won’t get too far into that. It’s just creepy. 

(Please, though, if you have to get that pic for your insta feed, ASK THEIR PARENTS PERMISSION. We literally have laws against that in the States.)

2.) Poverty is an intricate web that you won’t be unable to untangle in a brief visit to another country. Poverty is much more than a lack of material wealth. It has a lot more to do with lacking the empowerment to change your situation. Impoverished communities don’t need money, or a well (or irrigation systems or whatever you were building), it needs resources. Educations. Feminine hygiene products. 

Even if, somehow, we were able to miraculously find a way to provide these communities with all the resources they need, there is also usually a corrupt government that has regulations in place to create this systematic poverty and profit off of the suffering of their people. 

Also, think about all the ways it can be harmful. While researching this piece, I came across various accounts from long-term volunteers who enter their programs with unwavering optimism and leave as jaded as can be. This comes from their realization that while they’re busting their butts trying to make changes in these communities, the men of the village are content to chill out and wait for the next shipment of food to arrive from whatever relief organization.

Why work when it’s going to come for free?

3.) Whatever you’re doing, you probably aren’t really all that qualified. Unless you’re filling a void (*cough docs with borders cough*), the work you’re doing is just not going to make a lasting impression. The people who grew up in the area are going to be vastly more aware of what they need, and, therefore, vastly more able to satisfy needs as they present themselves. 

Plus, have you ever considered the work that you’re doing is depriving someone else of this exact same job? 

This plays into what I mentioned above – by doing the work for people, it is going to cause passiveness. How much good can we possibly be doing if we’re just training people into being recipients? What happens if aid stops being sent?

4.) In all honesty, they probably just don’t need you. Maybe I’m beating a dead horse here, but what organization in its right mind is going to send a group of young adults to a place that is seriously dangerous or incapacitated in any way for two weeks? 

They aren’t.

Voluntourism is a multibillion dollar industry, but I think you’d be surprised at how little of that is going towards the people who really need it. 

In conclusion, your altruistic little jaunt to Ghana isn’t doing jack for the longevity of the local’s well being. 

Cole told us that “This world exists simply to satisfy the needs – including, importantly, the sentimental needs – of white people and Oprah.”

Next time you’re thinking about a service trip, do your research. Find an alternative. There are so many ways to do good on this earth.

Service trips just aren’t one of them.