We have all seen them.

You know what I’m talking about. You’re cruising Facebook and you notice that some friend from high school has posted a series of mildly over-exposed photos from their church’s latest mission trip to this or that exotic place in Africa or Latin America. The friend is surrounded by smiling children of another race. Everyone seems happy and, on Facebook, the likes and comments abound.

These sorts of trips are growing more popular and, these days, you certainly don’t have to be a member of a church to get yourself a likable selfie with some cute foreign kids.

An entire industry has emerged to serve the humanitarian in all of us, with, according to NPR more than 1.6 million tourists paying around $2 billion annually to tourism companies that match them with the perfect underdeveloped destination. It’s called “voluntourism,” and it is becoming increasingly popular among millennials.

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It seems dirty, though, doesn’t it? I mean, just think about it.

Middle class Western students pay money to spend a few weeks ogling at the daily realities of people less fortunate than they are, armed only with their privilege and good intentions. For the “natives” (a problematic term in itself), poverty is their reality. For the volunteers, it is a vacation.

Lauren Kascak and Sayantani Dasgupta take this industry to task in a article for Pacific Standard Magazine titled, “#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism.”

They question whether “voluntour” trips are popular because they help to relieve suffering or because they offer some sort of egotistical fulfillment for the volunteers.

While volun-cationing, young idealists, usually white women between the ages of 22 and 25, take part in construction projects without any previous building experience, they help to build and maintain local health clinics without any knowledge of disease or pathology and, usually, they take lots of pictures. The black and brown children they pose with become nameless keepsakes, trophies that prove their generosity to their social media following. When their stay is up, these volunteers can pat themselves on the back, certain that they have done their part to ease the collective suffering of the third world.

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“What I think often gets lost is the host communities,” Theresa Higgs, vice president of global operations for United Planet, a non-profit voluntouring organization that trains volunteers told NPR. “Are they gaining? Are they winning? Are they true partners in this? Or are they simply a means to an end to a student’s learning objective, to someone’s desire to have fun on vacation and learn something?”

Much of the criticism of global voluntourism points to the unequal power dynamic between the volunteers and the natives they serve. Perhaps, some suggest, voluntourism is merely a manifestation of colonialism, when missionary volunteers made their way across Africa, spreading the good news of Christianity and all the while helping to feed a Western imperialist agenda.

None of this is to say that volunteering abroad is a bad thing. There is a long history of Western allies working in solidarity with social organizations based in developing regions.

To be truly effective, though, a certain level of self-awareness is necessary among volunteers. They must understand that they are also the oppressor.

According to the World Economic Forum, the United States had a Gross Domestic Product of $16.77 trillion in 2013. Global wealth inequality continues to increase, with the top one percent of the world population owning nearly half of the wealth.

So a volunteer may help to build a house, all the while buying products from corporations back home that contribute to global inequality. Merely living in the wealthiest nation on earth means that we benefit daily from the suffering of others.

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Cover Photo Credit: Alexandre Dulaunoy/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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Judah Martin is a senior studying journalism at the University of Alabama. He is interested in using ethnographic journalism to explore the ways in which social injustices impact the daily lives of marginalized peoples. Martin can be contacted at jmmartin5@crimson.ua.edu.

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