• Emillee Hernandez

Dissecting Voluntourism: Who Really Benefits?


Oftentimes we like to view volunteering abroad as an endeavor fuelled by passions for international development and helping those in need. However, from what I have seen in my past volunteer trips is the underlying goal of feeling good rather than doing good.

What do I mean?

When a group takes a trip abroad, they are determined to make a difference in the world by building a school, teaching English, or volunteering in an orphanage, etc. Endeavors such as these are vital for a community’s development and provide them the tools needed to alleviate themselves out of poverty. These trips are usually expensive and short-term yet worth it for volunteers because of the sense of accomplishment and pride they feel after a trip abroad. A photo with a hammer here, a selfie with an orphan there, and TA-DA! You got yourself a do-gooder. Or so they think.

In reality, sometimes the impact of volunteer work isn’t always as it seems. In some cases, volunteers are unfit for efficient and effective change in a developing area. By not possessing the proper building skills or language skills, development projects can actually become delayed rather than enhanced by volunteer efforts. Volunteer and blog writer, Pippa Biddle, can contest to both of these drawbacks. In high school, Biddle accompanied 14 other classmates to Tanzania where they helped build a school library. The students did such a poor job in building the structure that the local men had to take their work down and rebuild the foundation before the volunteers noticed the following day. That same summer, Biddle embarked on another volunteer trip to the Dominican Republic in which her rudimentary Spanish rendered communication with the children difficult[1]. For any development project abroad, it is imperative to be prepared for the project itself - be it preparing future volunteers for the physical labor they are about to do, or preparing a project so that it is long-lasting and sustainable.

Sometimes development projects end up lasting short periods of time relative to their expected duration. For example, the NGO PlayPump International gained worldwide attention when they proposed their plan to place 4,000 PlayPumps around Africa by 2011[2]. Playpumps are essentially marry-go-rounds that pump water into elevated tanks when spun around by the children who play on them. They were projected to deliver clean water to ten million people but, by 2007, a UNICEF report claimed that the pumps were “abandoned, broken and unmaintained.”[3] The once-promising development project was now unwanted by villagers. Mothers had to spin the pump in pairs to receive water in some villages as PlayPumps replaced pre-existing handpumps, while other villages had to pay children to play on them[4]. Although the idea was pitched with good intentions, PlayPump International was missing a monitoring program to follow up on the project’s success—or lack thereof.

We can see that organizations and volunteers alike tend to overestimate their overall influence on a developing area at times. Going abroad, implementing a project, and coming home feeling gratified by the work you’ve done is one thing. But preparing for a trip, implementing a project with expertise, and going home knowing that the project’s sustainability is ensured is another thing entirely. This is not to say that all volunteers and NGOs are driven solely by the desire to “feel good”. Rather, the purpose of this piece is to caution those in the field of international development to be aware of such underlying problems.

So make a difference. But one that actually counts.

[1] Pippa Biddle, “The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys, and Voluntourism,” The Blog, January 23, 2014, accessed October 28, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pippa-biddle/little-white-girls-voluntourism_b_4834574.html

[2] Michael Hobbes, “Stop Trying to Save the World,” New Republic, November 17, 2014, accessed October 28, 2015, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/120178/problem-international-development-and-plan-fix-it

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

Comic Strip by Emillee Joy Hernandez


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