After graduating in humanitarian aid and International relations, Chloé Sanguinetti worked in international development alongside an NGO in Cameroon as well as for the French Red Cross. She then set out on a year and a half long round the world trip. On the way she filmed short-term volunteers working with children, asking them about their motivations and their impact on local communities. She also interviewed directors of local organisations, questioning them on their need to welcome international volunteers, to produce the documentary ‘The Voluntourist’. Now based in London she is actively promoting the film to raise awareness against short term unskilled volunteering.
She spoke with Better Volunteering Better Care’s co-ordinaitor Anna Mckeon about what she learned when making the film, and what she hopes it might achieve.
Anna: What inspired you to make the film?
Chloé: When I was 19 I volunteered in Vietnam, teaching English to ‘street children’ for two weeks. I didn’t have the appropriate skills; I didn’t know the country, the language or the culture. As soon as I stood in front of a class I crumbled: what was I doing? Who did I think I was, pretending to be a teacher? I came back home, went back to University, wrote a few essays on international volunteering and decided to take my questioning further. As soon as I finished studying I set out on a round the world trip with my camera. I met with volunteers who reminded me of myself a few years before and asked them about their motivations, the impact they thought they were having and generally questioned the idea of ‘voluntourism’ altogether. The result became the film ‘The Voluntourist’.
Anna: What was the most surprising thing to you about the volunteers and the situations you experienced?
Chloé: As I set out on my trip and started asking people why they were volunteering I didn’t really know what I would ‘find’. I just wanted to understand why people were so eager to help without questioning their impact. I didn’t expect to discover that voluntourism could be as harmful as it can sometimes be. Especially in the case of orphanage volunteering. I remember walking into an orphanage in Cambodia that was hosting 15 western volunteers and thinking ‘what the hell is this place?’ The Cambodian director shamelessly told me, on camera, that he used to send the ‘orphans’ to beg at the nearby temples of Angkor because he didn’t have enough money. The volunteers weren’t doing anything, they would just sit around and play with the children, cuddling them and taking photos. But they were bringing in money. It was like the perfect voluntourist trap. But the volunteers were so full of good intentions and naïve that they didn’t question it.
Anna: What kind of reception did the film get?
Chloé: The film was well received. Two days after I posted it online I received an email from a girl who told me that she’d started volunteering in an orphanage a few days earlier despite what her friends had told her, watched the film and stopped her placement straight away. It felt amazing. The aim of the film is definitely not to shame volunteers or people who want to help but rather to open up the debate on voluntourism: I think this is why it was well received. People are ready to hear that maybe we could do things better. Once at a conference, a man stood up and told me I was irresponsible for making such a film, that it would discourage people from wanting to help. I later discovered that he was working for one of the biggest volunteer sending agencies and that my film would threaten his profit. That felt great too!
Anna: Did any of the volunteers you met see the film? What did they think?
Chloé: The general feedback from the volunteers in the film was that although they weren’t really comfortable with being shown as an example of something you should not do, they agreed with the message of the film and hence agreed to be in it.
Anna: You have screened the film and done talks in a number of different places – how do people react to what you have to say?
Chloé: It largely depends on the audience. I have screened the film in a lot of universities and the reaction is always great. Students are really eager to talk about voluntourism and how we can make sure that we have a positive impact. It’s always a little bit difficult at the beginning because when you question people’s good intentions it becomes very personal… But I think it’s a healthy and necessary conversation.
On the other hand, I once screened the film in front of the staff of a volunteer sending agency (I won’t name them) and as I thought that the conversation was going well, they went on telling me about all the orphanages they were working with and how their programs were different from the ‘bad’ ones. I felt a bit deflated.
I think this is interesting: when I talk to past and potential volunteers I feel like the conversation is going somewhere. When I talk to people who benefit from voluntourism, not so much. Weird right?
Anna: How do you see the problems within orphanage volunteering fitting into the overall picture of volunteer travel?
Chloé: As I discovered while doing research for the film, orphanage volunteering is possibly the worst kind of volunteering you could decide to do. It is harmful and dangerous. But it is still one of the most attractive types of volunteering. And that to me illustrates perfectly the problems with voluntourism. Working directly with children is rewarding, you feel loved and useful; you get great shots of you doing something good for the world, come home and feel satisfied. And because of this you do not question the actual impact of your experience. We need to stop confusing what is good with what feels good.
Anna: What steps do you think need to be made to try and change some of the more negative practices that you explore in the film?
Chloé: We need to keep the conversation going. The more we question what we do, the programs we take part in, the organisations we engage with, the closer we will be to having a positive impact. The change needs to come from both sides: the more volunteers will ask for ethical volunteering programs, the better volunteer sending agencies will do. More and more young people aspire to travelling and giving a bit of their time during their trip: I truly believe this is a force that can lead to global understanding. But not the way we are doing it now. We should travel and learn from each other rather than assuming that a local community on the other side of the world needs our help.
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