Poverty Tourism & Gap Year Trips


Volunteering overseas is a very odd experience. 

On the one hand you're overcome with feelings of solidarity, wanderlust, excitement, this almost creepy over-romanticized sensitivity to whats happening around you. You're wrought with all of the various complexes that come with the layers upon layer of unexplored realities, now in front of you, punching you in the face repeatedly, and then stroking your hair and reassuring you that it'll never hurt you. Guilt mostly. 

All of these confusing emotions manifest themselves in different ways for different people but the person that emerges from this experience is also highly vulnerable to the context in which the trip is executed. 

With that being said I was inspired by my own journey to look a littler further into volunteering overseas and have come to the following conclusions on these gap year trips. 

What is a Gap Year Trip?

There is a right of passage found predominantly in the UK where students are encouraged to take a break between their high school and university education to explore the world, expose themselves to poverty, diverse cultures, and seek ecological tourist opportunities.  


Off hand this process is relatively positive and has the potential to offer rewarding exposure that may foster a genuine desire to affect social change. However, once the process is commodified it becomes susceptible to corruption and exploitation. The trip is framed as an experience rather than a leaning workshop rooted in solidarity and collaboration. 

The greatest danger of this practice is that it creates an awkward perception of members of the global South and it perpetuates a relationship of dependency. If you are considering a gap year trip first take note of the language used in the advertisements. "Spread the literacy word to many of Malawi's underprivileged youth" This implies that westerns models of literacy should be assimilated into South African cultures. This is not necessarily the case. Pre-colonial African education took place predominantly through story telling by elders to instill cultural values, moral education and entertainment. Should this be the case? Should South African children be learning English? European grammar? Western writing skills? who knows. The real point is; its not up to a volunteer trip to decide. 



First impressions of this advertisement seem fine, but I can't seem to shake this feeling of wanting to vomit in my mouth a little when I see it. We are now living in a world where we can purchase the experience of neo-colonialism - literally. Why are we paying to teach children in South Africa? Why are we not paying into economic processes that allow actual teachers in South Africa to teach their own classes? 

Even more frightening is this:


The article title is obviously sensationalized, however this fake slum providing a "learning opportunity" for luxury tourists does little to change the economic power dynamics of globalization. People exposed to superficial poverty experiences channel their new found guilt through mechanisms like this:



When we channel our guilt through mechanisms like World Vision we do nothing to address the systemic roots of poverty. We don't see the variables in our culture that have created this situation and with proper action, can correct this situation:

Engaging with World Vision will not teach you about forces like

  • Structural adjustment
  • Unfair trade tariffs
  • Investor control of international institutions (World Bank, IMF)
  • Unfair labor practices
  • Supply monopolies and oligopolies
  • Externalizing social and environmental prices on producers

No, we simply write a check and go about our day feeling a little better about ourselves. If you do donate to World Vision don't take offence, you are still channeling a powerful tool; compassion. I'm just introducing some new concepts you may not have otherwise been aware of for your consideration. World Vision acts as a great bandage for a bullet-wound but we all know that true healing in any scenario is far more complex.

The Effects of Poverty Tourism on Commidified Populations

Poverty tourism (much like sweatshops) drive business and funding to the host community. While it provides these communities with opportunities to become the recipients of income, it often does not work towards initiatives for that community to generate its own income. The business of that gap year trip is dependent on that commodified population remaining in a state of poverty. Therefore overseas voluntourist programs run by for-profit travel companies do not have a stake in assisting that community to ascend from a state of poverty. Even worse it feeds into abusive psychological processes on the part of the host group like enslavement of the mind, and the white saviour complex. 


So why support something that perpetuates poverty?

In Conclusion

I am not opposed to gap year trips. I am however, opposed to any gap year trip that does not teach constructive methods for eradicating poverty, so this is my advice: from a girl whose been on quite a few trips: 

If you do go on a poverty tourist trip I strongly recommend that you carefully consider your actions upon your return. In lieu of opening your check books for orgs like World Vision, support economic and governmental forces that combat systemic roots of poverty. 

  • Support and buy Fair Trade products: This is an solidarity-based alternative trade movement that gives control back to the producers, and unravels issues of corrupted value chain, structural adjustment, extorting middle men, and unequal power relationships. 
  • If you do go on a gap year trip do not go with a travel company. Instead choose a reputable non-profit that has a strong program in place designed to challenge your assumptions and offer you constructive methods to systemically address these global problems in your local context. 
  • Lobby government for more corporate regulation: The wealthiest 1% of the population have their hands in the pockets of government officials so deeply that they control regulations that would otherwise prevent exploitation of the environment and producers.
  • Give up on the unrealistic desire to become a millionaire: Irrationally accumulating wealth in excess is an addictive sickness that compromises your moral decision making. Strive for fair wage distribution modeled by a strong middle class.
  • Give up on the idea that members of the third world should be afforded the opportunity to become westernized: Leave your pre-conceived notions of what should be done in your own country. Listen, engage, be a sponge, be respectful, respond to community needs and strive to be a resource; not a teacher.

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