Posted by: Hyeonjin | October 15, 2014

Voluntourism à la Victorian Age

As our class viewed and discussed some of the engravings from the Irish Famine, one that really stood out to me was the one of the young girl passing clothes out to the people.

I think it goes without saying that clothes were probably the last thing on these people’s minds.

And I couldn’t help but wonder what even went through this girl’s head as she was passing these clothes out. Did she just completely ignore the fact that these people clearly need food? Her facial expression is hard to read since there doesn’t really seem to be a sense of enjoyment of passing these out, but there isn’t absolute hatred either. Is she doing this because it’s just a “good thing to do”? What even made her leave the comforts of her own abode to travel out to Ireland and pass out clothes of all things?

It’s not only ridiculous but somewhat uncomfortable to think about. And it reminds me of all the celebrities today who go out to help those less fortunate, taking pictures of them smiling widely as though to say, “Look at me! I’m being a good person!”

But celebrities aren’t the only ones who do this. You see a huge number of people our age who also go out to volunteer in different parts of the world. Do they actually make an impact? Each case is different, so it’s hard to say. But there is always a handful of people who aren’t really there to volunteer but actually there to travel and tour around the place (“voluntourism” as it is so often called). After all, you may see their Facebook album filled with these beautiful sceneries, them enjoying the culture, and other miscellanea but not really… helping? And if they are, it always seems to be so out of place like Miss Kennedy in the engraving.

Skeptical Third World Kid meme pretty much encompasses this:

We have no way of knowing what went through any of the minds of these people depicted in the engraving. We don’t even know what’s going through the mind of the artist behind this since the caption does not provide much other than what is happening. As far as I’m aware though, Miss Kennedy is another volunteer for tourism who is clueless to the needs of the people. Even if she is not traveling around the world and perhaps is only going out into the countryside… it still makes you wonder.

“Miss Kennedy Distributing Clothing at Kilrush” from London Illustrated News.

Skeptical Third World Kid meme examples from and Google Images.


  1. I’d venture to say that voluntourism exists largely to assuage the guilt of the privileged – in this case, Miss Fancypants Kennedy.

    And props for bringing Skeptical Third World Kid. He is my hero.

  2. First, thanks for including Skeptical Third World Kid in this post; I’d never seen those memes before and they’re GREAT (although, if we were going to get really critical, still an example of using “others” to explicate/work through our own issues).

    Second, I’m going to go ahead and agree with Emily on this one. Voluntourism, as it’s depicted in the engraving of Miss Kennedy and the hundreds of facebook photos our friends post of their two week “volunteer trips” to faraway lands, functions as a means of assuaging the guilt of the privileged class. It’s a way of acknowledging that devastating inequalities exist in the world without having to confront those playing out closer to your everyday life, inequalities to which you may be unknowingly contributing.

    Third, we may have discussed this in class but my memory is a little blurry so I’ll post it here all the same: did Miss Kennedy remind anyone of Mrs. Pardiggle’s children in Bleak House? Like you mention in your post, it’s unclear how Miss Kennedy feels about handing out the clothes to the starving Irish people in this photo. It might be safe to assume that her strongest feeling is one of confusion, even anger, at being made to hand out clothes in a place she doesn’t understand to people whose suffering is unfamiliar. For me, this engraving of Miss Kennedy and the description of Mrs. Pardiggle’s boys raises important questions about the connection between motherhood/nurturing and volunteer work. Is a person (specifically, a woman’s) capacity for nurturing limited? Is objectification (of the children in our Facebook friends’ photos, or Mrs. Pardiggle’s own little do-gooders) inextricable from philanthropic work? What do you guys think?

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