Cultural Cannibalism

The superiority of volunteers does not only influence the relationship to the local community, but also to the local culture. International volunteers travel in many cases without any knowledge about the culture, customs and traditions to developing countries. They behave as if they were at home, not showing any cultural sensitivity nor cultural understanding. The result is a cultural cannibalism.

Researchers and social scientists blame commercial voluntourism for enforcing a Western Culture to developing countries. International volunteers shape and influence the local culture and lifestyle to a more and more western one – sometimes even without knowing.

“Intuitively, it is not surprising to hear, anecdotally, that young aid volunteers
from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations routinely,
although unintentionally, encourage rural youth to aspire for Western fashion,
Western diet and Western materialism. In the process, rationally, we would expect
to see rural youth evincing decreasing overt respect for elders and for tribal traditions.”

Atkins 2012: “Smartening-up Voluntourism: SmartAid’s Expansion of the Personality-focused Performance Requirements Form”
International Journal of Tourism Research 14: 371.

Especially in the among volunteers popular child-related projects this cultural influence might be very problematic. The interaction between international volunteers and the local community, which in many cases may be poor and have little previous experience with tourists, may in fact function to negatively impact the host culture.

“The ‘demonstration effect’ is a term denoting the process by which a host culture is
impacted when tourists draw attention to their lifestyles and items of wealth.”

Guttentag 2009: “The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism”
International Journal of Tourism Research 11: 547.

The term “Cultural Cannibalism” has been used by Wearing in his famous work “Volunteer tourism: experiences that make a difference” (2009). According to Wearing, cultural cannibalism is the result when travellers consume the local culture but at the same time damaging it by their behaviour and western lifestyle. It happens directly and indirectly as well as consciously and unconsciously. It homogenises the local culture following the model of the dominant influence.

Cannibalisation also affects the local employment market – especially when international volunteers are regarded as regular staff. Many volunteering projects represent simple, unskilled work to give volunteers the chance to participate. But usually this work can also be done by local, unskilled staff. International volunteers are now competitors in the local employment market!

“The problem when volunteer tourists perform work that could be performed by local
community members is that volunteer tourists naturally work for free – and actually pay
for the opportunity to perform the work – so they may undercut competing local labourers.”

Guttentag 2009: “The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism”
International Journal of Tourism Research 11: 544.

Especially when young and inexperienced volunteers are not aware of the downsides of voluntourism, the danger is large. Unfortunately, many volunteers do not care about it. They only care about improving their CV and gaining adventurous experiences through their volunteering program.

Go back to the main page: The Danger Of Voluntourism,
or check our List Of Literature And Articles for more illuminating facts.