Travel in today’s society has never been more accessible. The advanced technology developed in the 20th century that allows us to cross oceans and continents has paved the way for an increased interest in cultures that differ from one’s own. Furthermore the internet has allowed billions of people across the globe to feel more connected to each other than ever. Photographers, videographers, and reporters have managed to give everyone online a glimpse of a life outside their own so that while we can all see the differences between us, we can also imagine how we could have just as easily ended up in a different family, a different country, a different life.
My mother, an American, lived in the Philippines for five years when she was little. The only contact her family had with anyone in the US, apart from letters, was an annual phone call to her mother’s sister that they made once a year on Christmas day. That was in the 1960s. Half a century later, in 2018, a friend of mine at university in Canada skypes a girl living in Turkey once a week to help her advance her English. The proximity we can now feel to people across the world, however virtual, has created more empathy for complete strangers. This phenomena has had several results, one of the most intriguing being voluntourism.
Voluntourism: “A munge of the terms ‘volunteer’ and ‘tourism’ used to describe [volunteer] placements of tourists as part of their overall vacation or travels” (Scott). This is a fairly neutral definition of the term ‘voluntourism.’ The full definition given by Audrey Scott in her article “Volunteering and Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, and The Questions You Should Ask,” included that voluntourism was technically only short-term and that the volunteer placement in question was usually unrelated to a voluntourists’ specific skillset, meaning that many programs were designed more for the voluntourists’ enjoyment than for a desire to fulfill the needs of the community a voluntourist is working with. This is a somewhat more cynical view on things. Surely this seemingly increased interest in volunteering, in helping others around the world should be a good thing. Although Scott does have a point that if volunteering were the main goal of voluntourism, then couldn’t they simply help out those a little closer to home? Scott sees voluntourism as travel with a volunteer component, but for some people couldn’t it be volunteering with a travel component? Besides, as long as the volunteering is there, isn’t that better than regular travel for pleasure?
The issues with voluntourism have little to do with the intentions of the voluntourists, whether their primary purpose for being there is travel or volunteering, and much more to do with the execution of the volunteering. Judith Lasker, author of Hoping to Help: The Promise and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering, had many critiques of voluntourism but still stated that the majority of volunteers provide some kind of benefit to the communities they serve (Walleigh). The most important thing for someone who might be considering voluntourism is to do as much research as possible about the program you might be partaking in. This is the easiest way to find out what kind of an impact you could have on a community you’re seeking to help. Programs whose primary focus are on helping a community will naturally have deep ties to that community either by having a local office or by partnering with a local organization. This is the only way to ensure that a program fully understands the needs of a given community, and that the work that you do will not be for nothing, or worse, will not be detrimental to the public. A program that focuses on what it supposes to be the issues in a community as opposed to the actual issues in the community can divert resources from real problems and even create new ones.
Secondly try to see how the program relates back to the community once the volunteers have left. One issue is that even when the work volunteers are doing is greatly benefiting a community they can unknowingly be cultivating a culture of dependency, so that when that support is no longer there the community ends up in even worse shape than it started in. It is important that a program you partake in promote self-sufficiency in the community. Also some of these programs offer that you can pay a flat rate for all expenses, including a placement-fee, and it is important to ask where exactly these funds are going.
When it comes to shorter assignments, such as one to three weeks, the only real way to help out is if you have a specialized skillset (e.g. surgeons on assignment to help locals with acute conditions, or technicians completing a pre-planned project). Two of the most popular forms of voluntourism are medical aid and construction, both of which are often performed by people who are unqualified and know little about what they’re doing. For example, in the case of natural disasters, Sarah Schlichter tells us unless you have medical or disaster response experience, you’re likely just going to get in the way. A good question to ask yourself when considering doing a job in another country is “would I trust myself to do this job in my home country?” Writer Pippa Biddle shared a story from a trip she took in Tanzania: “Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students, were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. … Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level” (Schlichter).
Another kind of work that voluntourists should be wary of is working with orphanages. Not very long ago in places such as Haiti, Nepal, Uganda, and Cambodia orphanages weren’t very common. However once certain people in these countries realized they could use orphanages to turn a profit by soliciting foreigners for donations, these children’s homes began cropping up everywhere. It can sometimes be emotionally damaging for these children who quickly form attachments to volunteers only to see them leave after two weeks. Although in some cases some of the children living there actually have parents, but are placed there so that the orphanage can have enough children to seem legitimate. In the worst-case scenarios, the orphanages themselves are involved in child sex trafficking (Scott, Schlichter).
While Lasker is supportive of voluntourism, she prefers “longer trips, [which entail] much better volunteer preparation and programs that are coordinated with and support local communities and officials on an ongoing basis, focus on underlying causes of ill health, and are embedded in continuous community-based assessment, partnership and follow-up evaluation” (Walleigh). Longer trips allow time for training volunteers, not just in the work they will be doing but also in understanding the culture they’ll be interacting with.
In the end, as long as you’re working with a good organization, any kind of volunteering you do should be beneficial. Construction with the right supervision and medical aid with the right training is usually going to do more harm than good. When it comes to short-term projects, even if your affect on the actual community is not large, it has been shown that the affect these experiences have on the volunteer can shape their outlook on helping people locally, as well as the international community, making them a more charitable and open-minded person at home.
Suggested Short-term Overseas Volunteer Programs:
Suggested Long-term Overseas Volunteer Programs:
Rhodes, Francesca. “Voluntourism - Good or Bad?” Global Citizen, 3 Apr. 2013, www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/voluntourism-good-or-bad/.
Schlichter, Sarah. “Voluntourism: Does It Really Help?” SmarterTravel, 5 June 2017, www.smartertravel.com/2017/06/19/voluntourism-really-help/.
Scott, Audrey. “Volunteering and Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, and The Questions You Should Ask.” Uncornered Market, 23 Dec. 2017, uncorneredmarket.com/volunteering-voluntourism-good-bad-and-questions-to-ask/.
Walleigh, Rick. “6 Ways To Volunteer Abroad And Be Really Useful.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 23 May 2016, www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2016/05/23/6-ways-to-volunteer-abroad-and-be-really-useful/#31cab35f61bd.