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How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Voluntourism

Voluntourism is not as altruistic as first believed.

With coronavirus, many families are starting to think differently about the way they travel. For some, this means giving back to the communities they visit. This sentiment is a noble one, for sure, but it should be approached with caution. Voluntourism, as it’s often called, can do a lot to teach your children about our global interconnectedness. But if not done consciously or with the right organization, it has the potential to do a lot of harm to the communities in which you’re serving. 

On a personal/professional note, I spent over a decade of my career coordinating volunteer programs for college students. I saw my central role managing these programs as creating the foundation to do no harm (at the very least) and then to teach the students to think critically about social justice issues. I believe the values by which we approached intentional and social justice-minded programming can be translated into travels with your family. 

What is Voluntourism?

Voluntourism is, quite simply, volunteering while traveling. 

It could be a few days of volunteering tacked onto a vacation such as volunteering at a school for a day after an African safari. Or, the trip itself could be entirely focused on volunteering where you work on a volunteer project, usually through a third-party organization. Voluntourism is always short-term. A few days, a week, or maybe even a month. But typically not for long-term.

This is a growing industry with around 1.6 million people spending at least a portion of their vacation volunteering each year. While it seems the business is focused on altruism, it often focuses less on providing sustainable and needed assistance to communities, rather it’s designed to create experiences that puts desires of tourist-volunteers first. This tourist-centric priority creates huge problems in that it’s imposing desires and values from the outside on communities. 

Consequences of Voluntourism for Communities

Back in 2010, a damning study about AIDS orphan tourism in South Africa was released showcasing the negative consequences of what was then a new-ish phenomena, short-term volunteer service. The finding: short-term volunteer travel does more harm than good. The typical voluntourists are young people, often on a gap year abroad.

Voluntary Service Overseas [the British Peace Corps]  called this “a new form of colonialism” in a quote in an article by Ian Birrell in The Guardian. “VSO asked what right unqualified British teenagers had to impose their desire to do good at schools in developing countries,” wrote Birrell. “The more you look below the surface, the more these trips raise profound questions about misplaced idealism and misconceived attitudes.” 

In the decade since that report was published, the voluntourism/short-term volunteer industry is only growing and the number of orphanages which are at the heart of the problem, keep proliferating. Sadly, the problem of well-intentioned travelers doing more harm than good is still extremely relevant.

Here are some consequences to keep in mind as you consider volunteering.

  • It doesn’t actually help the community. The community is doing a favor for the organization and the volunteer to let them be there. These projects often not only don’t help the community because they’re decided on by outsiders, they burden the community with the work of facilitating the experience for the volunteers. Note: this is honestly the best we can expect of potential harm that can be done, consequences can be quite worse.
  • Subverts community needs. Without sufficient input by local organizations about projects, the time and energy to organize volunteers can actually take money and resources away from community projects that are needed and that don’t require outside volunteers.
  • Volunteers take needed jobs by community members. Volunteers paying (quite a lot in some cases) to volunteer come in from the outside, there’s an incentive to replace good-paying jobs in a community with those volunteers.
  • Volunteers often don’t have the skills to help. While some building projects could use a large group of volunteers who can learn on-the-job, many volunteer positions require certain skills to be effective. This is especially relevant when we’re looking to have our young kids volunteer. 
  • Voluntourism can perpetuate corruption of the system where bad players take advantage of poor families. “Orphan tourism” is a big, and insidious part of the voluntourism industry and in many cases, orphanages take advantage of the perceived altruism of Western tourists for personal benefit. This Huffington Post story highlights corruption at the root of the industry.
  • “Orphanage Tourism” perpetuates child abuse and exploitation. As an extension of the corruption, orphanages in lower-income countries are ripe with child neglect and abuse allegations and the lack of oversight and regulation puts these kids at a high risk of abuse.
  • Voluntourism in orphanages supports the institutionalization of children instead of supporting family units to raise their children. A vast majority of children in orphanages (80-90%) have at least one living parent. But the industry around orphanage tourism creates incentive for institution directors to convince parents to give over their children rather than providing necessary support to keep families together where their child’s outcome is better.
  • Voluntourism creates attachment issues in children. With volunteers coming and going with frequency, studies have shown that children in orphanages develop attachment disorders. While studies are specifically focused on orphanage volunteering, this  could be translated to any environment where children interact with a number of volunteers. 

Consequences of voluntourism for volunteers

Bad voluntourism practices not only harm communities, they can also make the power dynamics worse between the volunteer and the community. As parents who want to create global citizens, it’s important we do it mindfully, so we should be wary of the negative perceptions that poorly run experiences can create in our kids and ourselves.

Volunteer travel is very much a Western concept, one rooted in colonialism and power imbalances between higher-income, whiter countries and lower-income, browner countries. Voluntourism done poorly feeds into those false/negative power structures and can perpetuate negative stereotypes, reinforce misconceptions, and promote white saviorism. 

But with education and strong program management, there are potential benefits.

Benefits of Volunteer Travel (if done properly)

With all the dire warnings above, you might think that I advocate for not opting for that volunteer trip. I might say that for most volunteer experiences (especially when very young kids are involved), but not all. If done well, volunteer trips can be wonderful experiences for the volunteer and the community alike. Here are some ways, if done properly, a volunteer trip can be a good thing.

  • Travel stimulates local economies. The pandemic–and the decrease in global travel–has shown how many local economies around the world rely on tourism. If volunteer travel can be done well, it can have the same positive economic impact.
  • Sustainable, community-designed, approaches to volunteer travel can support local professionals and communities. When communities are involved in designing volunteer projects, the positive effects can counter many of the pitfalls mentioned above. For example, from a Guatemala trip I supervised, local carpentry students–supervised by their carpentry instructor–led teams of our volunteers on a community-designed building project giving those carpentry students the opportunity to improve their skills through teaching others. 
  • Cultural immersion can help broaden perspectives of volunteers. Volunteers have an opportunity to learn, first-hand, about inequities and realities of poverty, but also learn about how social change can be achieved. 

How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Volunteerism

The good news is that there are ways we can be better volunteers, or at the very least, supporters of good forms of sustainable development. It comes with a certain amount of work on the volunteer’s part. But the work you put into the research, the reflection, the weighing of options, will pay dividends for you, your children, and especially, the communities you’re working with. 

Here are some ways to avoid the pitfalls. 

  • Dig deep and confront your motivations for volunteering abroad. Wanting to be a good global citizen and help other people is an excellent quality. But left unexamined, those intentions have consequences. Know that while it looks like you’re helping a community, the volunteer experience is more for you. That’s okay as long as you know it and are doing all the work to do no harm along the way.
  • Support and understand sustainable development. Sustainable development is “the idea that human societies must live and meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” according to Youmatter. Sustainable development ensures longevity for communities and it always requires creating strong communities from the inside.
  • Do your research on third-party organizations. Third-party organizations coordinating volunteer travel experiences are the most common way to participate in voluntourism. But they are not all created equal. As a coordinator of service-learning programs, I typically regarded such organizations with skepticism at the outset. The ones with a justice-oriented and sustainability-minded approach were harder to find. Here are some things to look for:
    • They employ locals at all levels of the organization from site directors to office staff. It is a red flag if the organization primarily employs foreigners to oversee on-site activities.
    • The projects are designed by the community where the project is taking place.  
    • The organization’s relationship/partnership with the communities in which they work is long-term and, thus, more sustainable. They go beyond “one-off” projects that don’t tie to a larger-scale impact.
    • Profits/income are distributed to the communities in which they work.
    • They have a clearly stated social justice and sustainable development approach to their work. Their demonstrated goal and their messaging is not to bring “aid,” rather to build relationships and support community-led sustainable development.
    • They have an education and reflection component (this is a bonus). Organizations that include a critical educational component about the culture, socio-political history, and social justice issues from the perspective of locals have an added layer of quality to them. 
  • Incorporate reflection and education around social justice issues throughout your volunteer time. Reflection–whether through guided discussions, daily journaling, informal chats–helps to counter the harmful misconceptions and to dig into what you’re learning in real time. It’s important to investigate your privilege and the power dynamics between you and the community through that reflection process. These Northwest Service Academy and Gateway Technical College toolkits from the higher ed sector are a helpful start.
  • Consider donation of items or funds instead of personal time. In many cases, especially with younger children, volunteering isn’t the best option. You may consider donating items or money to a well-vetted and high-quality organization instead. 
  • Play to your strengths and offer services for which you have expert skills. Find projects where your skills could help out. 

Volunteer travel can be incredibly rewarding. I do hope that these tips help give you the tools to travel while volunteering well. 

Resources

Here are some additional resources to dive more deeply into some of the topics above.

  • Alternative Breaks Programs: From Isolated Programs to Best Practices — I co-wrote this article (a long time ago! But it’s still relevant) with some colleagues based on work we did after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. While it’s geared towards higher education folks, it has discussed a lot of the pitfalls and provides best practices that can be utilized by anyone.

You may also like these articles from Bébé Voyage:

How To Acknowledge And Honor Indigenous Land

Conscious Travel During And After A Global Pandemic

Honoring Culture and the Environment on your Trip to Hawai’i

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