Voluntourism and Pathological Altruism

In chapter six of her new book Ours to Explore, Pippa Biddle introduces readers to Heddwyn Kyambadde, a Ugandan filmmaker and creative who grew up alongside global voluntourism. He remembers, as a child, watching voluntourists visit orphanages supported by the Watoto Church. As a young man, where this excerpt starts, he helped create the images and footage to attract more volunteers and the donations they brought with them. It wasn’t until he went to college in the United States, though, that he gained a deeper understanding of what was driving the van loads of voluntourists who had been cycling through his hometown his entire life. Kyambadde’s experiences provide a perspective often left out of the voluntourism narrative — that of the community members themselves.

Ours to Explore

by Pippa Biddle

Heddwyn Kyambadde’s photography job was short term. His goal was to go to college: an American college and, preferably, a Christian American college. A “cliché go-out-and-save-the-world college,” as Heddwyn calls it now. But soon after he arrived at Biola University in California—a good Christian boy at a good Christian school—things started happening that reminded him of the kids he had seen rubbing dirt on their faces, or the pictures he had taken of children crying. Soon, he realized that what he was witnessing at Biola was where everything he had seen at home in Uganda started.

Heddwyn was in an “experience room” for an on-campus conference when all of the pieces finally, jarringly, fit together. Each experience room was themed around a location on the globe and involved a skit meant to immerse and educate the conference participants. One was the Uganda room.

The first thing Heddwyn noticed about the Uganda room was that there was sand on the floor. Uganda is landlocked, and he’d never seen beach-style sand there. Then he noticed the broken desks, scattered chairs, and letters and numbers scrawled across a blackboard. His Black peers were playing the teacher and students, and as the skit started, the “teacher” recited the alphabet incorrectly. When the teacher instructed the students to parrot it back, a white student jumped out and exclaimed toward the onlookers, “We need to help them! They need help!” The message was unambiguous. Ugandans were helpless. Their teachers couldn’t even recite the alphabet.

Heddwyn hadn’t expected the Uganda room to show a perfect place, but he didn’t realize the complex reality of his country would be traded out for a caricature. For a moment, the room even made Heddwyn question his own knowledge of Uganda. “I thought, maybe I don’t know what is going on in my country? I grew up pretty wealthy. Maybe, this was what was actually going on.”

“There is something about religion,” Heddwyn says, “that gives… I don’t know if you can call it entitlement, but ‘because I do good, I have leeway. Because my heart is that of a minister, it’s ok.’” It is permission enabled by intention. He remembers when his peers asked a Sri Lankan student at Biola to stop cooking traditional food in the communal kitchen because they thought it “smelled like poop.” Then they excused their prejudice by saying they would love to go on a mission trip to her country someday. If the purpose is pure, the action is okay.

Power lines tend to fall along color lines, and prejudice and ignorance reinforce the us-versus-them structure voluntourism relies on. Over time, the guilt that drives the urge to invent differences, and to use those differences as excuses to exercise power, becomes pathological.

Pathological altruism is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when someone tries to do good, sees negative consequences as a result of their actions, and insists on continuing nonetheless. The term is attributed to Nancy McWilliams, who used it in her 1984 paper, “The Psychology of the Altruist.” Pathological altruists push forward as “messiahs of development” in the face of evidence that contradicts their intent.

Some communities have devised ways of capitalizing on voluntourists’ pathological altruism, from pretending to convert to Christianity to get the most from missionaries to using voluntourists as mules for items that are unavailable locally. Or, as Heddwyn saw, orphanage residents rubbing dirt on their faces to get the most from visitors. Yet these responses do little to solve the imbalance of power voluntourism thrives in. They are intriguing anecdotes within a mess of inefficiency.

For thousands of years, feeling concerned for others and scrambling to save them has helped humans stay alive. Today, it may be helping voluntourists do harm.


Adapted from Ours to Explore: Privilege, Power, and the Paradox of Voluntourism by Pippa Biddle, by permission of Potomac Books. © 2021 by Pippa Biddle. Available as an ebook and paperback from major booksellers and from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu.

Top illustration: Independence Monument in Uganda, by Alvinategyeka, CC-BY-SA-4.0

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