As an avid traveller, I’m often asked why I don’t participate in international development voluntourism projects when I travel. This question is often asked by well-intended individuals who have bought into the misconception that any pro-poor tourism is a selfless act and inherently beneficial to the world’s most disadvantaged communities. When I first started travelling at 17, voluntourism was never really an option for me because it wasn’t in my budget. Volunteer travel is generally very expensive, which is why I opted for cheap backpacking trips instead. Then in my first semester of uni in my “global development and change” class, my final essay involved evaluating whether or not voluntourism efforts actually benefit global development. As you can guess, simply put the answer was no.
You know the trips I’m talking about. The trips where you spend a few weeks in Cambodia singing and playing with orphaned children, or a few weeks in Haiti painting the walls of a school, or a week parading around Kenya handing out food to hungry families. The truth is, voluntourism is a multi billion dollar industry. It is often exploitative, and when unskilled workers come to participate in short-term volunteer trips, it does more harm than good for the individuals, the communities, and international development.
Voluntourism is a Multi-Billion Dollar Industry
Sadly, voluntourism is a multi-billion dollar industry. As Michelle Staton from The Almost Doctors so eloquently puts it, “Two weeks on a medical trip to Tanzania can cost you $3,040, not including airfare, which is roughly $2,000. If six people go on this two week trip, that’s more than enough money to pay for a local doctor’s annual salary. Let that sink in.”
Visiting a disadvantaged community might make you feel warm and fuzzy for a few weeks, and provide you a nice profile picture and a few stories to share with your friends and family about the culture shock you experienced, but its problematic to only want to invest your money into helping the world’s poor when you get something out of it for yourself. If you really cared about improving the lives of these people, you could repurpose the money you would spend money by donating it an organisation that is doing valuable work and making significant progress in development, or by talking to experts and directly investing the money into the community yourself. Just think how much food, healthcare, or much needed resources the money you would spend on a volunteer trip could provide a community in need if it were successfully repurposed.
Skilled vs unskilled workers
It’s important to note the difference between skilled and unskilled volunteer efforts, because as you can imagine, it’s skilled efforts that do make a difference, and unskilled efforts that have a negative effect. Here are some examples of skilled vs unskilled volunteer work:
- A trained surgeon joining Doctors Without Borders
- A qualified medical professional teaching valuable skills to healthcare workers in a developing countries
- Someone with experience as a teacher teaching English long-term
- A young person visiting an orphanage to help with basic housekeeping and playing with children all day
- A group of young people going to paint the walls of a school
- Someone with no construction experience spending their days building the walls for a house, school, or other community building
Pretty much the only time providing unskilled work in international development efforts will provide any benefit is during emergency/disaster relief where any help is good help.
Unskilled volunteer efforts have a negative impact first and foremost because they are taking jobs away from locals. Instead of paying locals with the knowledge and experience to complete the tasks that you do on your trip, you are providing unskilled work that the voluntourism company can profit from.
Furthermore, unskilled workers provide, well… unskilled work. Think of it like this, would you feel comfortable sending your own child to a school that a bunch of untrained millennial do-gooders built on their month long trip, under the supervision of an equally unskilled and inexperienced leader? Probably not. So why would it be okay for other people to send their children to school in a building like that?
Finally, sometimes you’re just there to occupy space and make money for a company. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter to voluntourism companies whether or not you actually provide something valuable to the community, because as long as you go home feeling fulfilled and “changed” as a person, they keep their good reputation and can continue to make money.
When it comes to medical service voluntourism, this is generally not as damaging and exploitative as other unskilled work, however it’s important to ensure medical assistance is given as effectively as possible. Vaccinating thousands of people for Cholera or Malaria can have a lasting and positive effect on communities, but there are ways in which medical assistance can have a greater impact than this: training local medical staff, providing funding for medical supplies, or providing relief to overburdened and under-resourced clinics can eliminate dependancy on external help, and allow communities to thrive o their own. These sorts of things however, should only be undertaken by qualified and experienced skilled medical and healthcare workers- not someone who is unskilled.
Short-term voluntourism has minimal benefits
When you participate in a short-term volunteer trip, you don’t really stick around long enough to see that you are having next to no benefit for the community involved. Sadly, good intentions aren’t enough to actually produce good. If you’re participating in a short-term unskilled volunteer project, then you already know you’re not doing anything to help, but even skilled volunteer workers need to participate in long-term projects that have seen proven, measurable positive results over time.
The darker side of short-term voluntourism that it can be harmful in promoting abandonment issues in children. Think about how it would feel for a child who bonds with someone for a week or two, and then that person disappears form their life without leaving anything more valuable behind than a bracelet or toy that the child will probably never use again. If you think that your voluntourism trip is worthwhile “just to see the smiles on the children’s faces,” you’re part of the problem. These children (who are taught to smile, laugh, and make the volunteers feel good about themselves) don’t need smiles, they need food security, healthcare, permanent shelter, access to clean water and sanitation, access to primary education, and jobs to earn an income.
Voluntourism can be exploitative
One of the perils of voluntourism is that it is exploitative, and turns disadvantaged people into a tourist attraction, or a way for the company to make money. Unfortunately, the commodification of disadvantaged people goes beyond just using poor children in our Facebook profile pictures to gain the approval of our peers, with an example of a particularly exploitative area of voluntourism being orphan tourism.
Orphan tourism is a thriving industry that exploits children and commodifies them, meaning children are used as an asset to lure voluntourists into a program, which allows the company to make money. I was first introduced to the concept of orphan tourism when I first visited Cambodia, and I saw this UNICEF sponsored ad for ChildSafe:
Orphanages or slum communities where you might see disadvantaged children are not a tourist attraction, and therefore shouldn’t be treated like one. They aren’t destinations to tick off your bucket list, spend a bit of time playing with some children, gifting them bracelets or candy, and taking a few happy snaps. These children don’t need temporary attention, useless gifts, or to be featured in your Facebook profile picture for a month: they need food, permanent shelter, healthcare, education, and stability- things that as a short term, unskilled voluntourist, you are not able to give. Unless you are able to commit to a long term position in an orphanage that will actually provide value to the children’s needs: don’t participate in orphanage
Even worse, with the increase of volunteer tourism and popularity of visiting child orphanages in places like Cambodia, many orphanages are employing deceptive, unethical tactics in order to create an orphanage environment that will generate more profit, as opposed to help more children. To find out more about this, check out this video:
Promoting the “Western Saviour” Complex
Misinformed foreigners who visit developing countries to participate in voluntourism only further perpetuate stereotypes of the “Western Saviour” complex, thinking that they have returned from their trips and “saved Africa,” or similar. Furthermore, when you only see and share your experiences in the “worst” of a country, people begin to associate the worst of a region as the entire nation.
Voluntourism is about you, not them
“As admirably altruistic as it sounds, the problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs” (Aljazeera America.) If you want to participate in voluntourism, ask yourself whether you want to help people, or whether you want people in need to be helped. If you want to help people, you’re probably more interested in self fulfilment than you are in making a real difference, and if you want people to be helped, look at alternative ways of helping that will actually make a difference- unfortunately, voluntourism wont do that. If you can’t justify your voluntourism efforts by saying, “it’s worth it, just to see the smiles on the children’s faces,” to convince yourself that you improved their lives. To actually be effective, you should focus on working to prevent future problems from occurring through development on long-term solutions and dedicated work run by legitimate organizations.
Some help is better than no help, right?
Wrong. A common argument to the objection of voluntourism having any real benefit is that “some help is better than no help,” when in reality it really isn’t. Considering that most of the time voluntourism efforts don’t actually make any difference, it seems a bit hypocritical for us to think that developing countries need our help just for the sake of helping, regardless of its uselessness, when we wouldn’t allow untrained and unskilled workers from overseas do the same type of work in our own countries.
Questions to ask before participating in Voluntourism
Before you participate in voluntourism, determine:
Who is organizing the project? Are they backed by reputable NGO or government organizations or are they just a glorified tourism business?
Do they have worthwhile goals? Does the organization constantly track and measure the progress that is being made to ensure that they are working towards their goals or are volunteers just doing little projects for the sake of doing projects?
What has the organization achieved so far? Is there evidence of progress and is it substantial enough for the period of time the projects have been carried out for?
Does the organization have a written policy on ethics? Do they clearly state how they implement their good intentions and provide evidence of their statements, or do they just use flowery language to fool you into believing they do good for the community
If they have short-term opportunities for unskilled workerrs, why can’t they hire locals… Is it possible they just want your money?
Find out more?
If you’re still not convinced, or want to learn more about the effectiveness of voluntourism check out these sources:
- TedTalk: Voluntourism: When You Take More Than You Leave Behind
Or check out these academic articles and studies:
- Medical voluntourism in Honduras: ‘Helping’ the poor? http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1467358414529443?journalCode=thrb
- Fair Trade Learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1467358414529443?journalCode=thrb
- The political economy of orphanage tourism in Cambodia http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1468797614563387
- Traveling for a cause: Critical examinations of volunteer tourism and social justice http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1468797614563380
What are your thoughts on voluntourism? Have you had similar experiences with pro-poor tourism? If you would like to let others know about the dangers that voluntourism has on people, communities, and international development, why not share this article or infographic on social media 🙂