The Other Side of Voluntourism: Does It Really Help?
At the ripe young age of 18, Elizabeth Avery was fascinated by learning about other cultures. It was this fascination that inspired her to participate in a summer cultural exchange through her local YMCA for six weeks in the Caribbean.
“It was six weeks in Trinidad and partially in Tobago. It was really a pre-cursor to the voluntourism of today,” says Avery, founder of Solo Trekker 4 You. During those six weeks, she and a group of college girls served as camp counselors for children and volunteered at community centers.
“It was my first travel abroad, and I learned about the diverse West Indian culture. As one person said, ‘Trinidad was the United States of the Caribbean.’ You could drive down the road and see in a short space of time a Hindu temple, a mosque and a pilgrimage to a Catholic church on the hilltop,” Avery says.
This trip inspired Avery so much she has continued her stint as a voluntourist – just traveling to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic last year with a small group.
“We visited with children over two days, hosted a party for them and took gifts for 150 children,” she says. Not only did she spend time working with children, but she learned about the orphanage and its needs. She took what she learned and, when she returned home, found a resource that supplies excess inventory to charities.
“With 150 children to clothe, the orphanage could really benefit from such extra clothing,” Avery says.
Avery’s desire to experience a new and different culture abroad while volunteering is an increasingly popular travel trend. In fact, a study found that more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year.
Volunteer tourism certainly seems like an admirable way to spend vacation time. Many people want to help charities and causes for those in need, so why not hop on a plane, travel where help is needed and get to work? Lending a hand and opening up your wallet to help a struggling foreign community is a commendable idea, but just as its popularity has risen so has controversy around it.
Why voluntourism may not be helpful
“While a win-win in theory, in practice voluntourism is typically much more beneficial for the traveler than the host community,” says Dr. Jacob Allen, who has worked in the voluntourism industry and is now heading a social impact measurement practice. “The development challenges host communities and individuals face are complex and systemic, which means they’re rarely solved with a few days of in-and-out labor or service.”
That might sound like a harsh assessment. After all, if people want to travel halfway around the world to help those less fortunate, it’s a good thing, right? Well, not accordingly Valerie Bowden, who traveled to Africa to make a positive impact.
“After college, I spent three months volunteering in Ethiopian orphanages. While I loved my time in the country, I became very turned off of the idea of volunteering and nonprofits,” says Bowden, author of Backpacking Africa for Beginners E-book.
But she didn’t realize the magnitude of this until she returned to Africa as a backpacker.
“I spent seven months traveling from Cape Town to Cairo by myself using only public transportation. This experience gave me even more insight into the damaging impact volunteering can have as I met many [disillusioned] do-gooders along the way,” she says.
According to Bowden, voluntouring takes jobs away from locals.
“You want to build a school? Paint a mural at the orphanage? Great. Guess who else could have done that? Locals. So while you’re huffing and puffing away, there are individuals in the community who could have been paid to do what you’re doing,” she says.
In order for voluntourism to have a big impact on a community, Dr. Allen says there are a couple of requirements:
- A dedicated, long-term, expert-driven, evidence-based, and independently-funded international development program. Otherwise, the tourism business will always take precedence over the development business.
- A healthy dose of humility and perspective on the part of the travelers and the voluntourism provider. While travelers often benefit from experiencing poverty in a new way, too often they leave thinking either the solutions to this poverty are easy and/or they’re ‘good’ enough to solve the issues with a quick-fix trip. Providers can educate travelers before, during, and after the trip on their role and what it really takes to make a difference.
There are some exceptions to this rule though.
“Of course, some types of voluntourism are more effective than others. Medical professionals can perform a surgery in a day that has lifelong benefits for the patient. But in most cases, prospective travelers who really want to make a difference should look for opportunities that involve significant education, longer-term engagements, and programs in which international volunteers serve a complementary, not essential, role in generating impact,” he says.
You can still travel and help those in need abroad
If you have the desire to help in a developing country, Bowden suggests that you simply travel there.
“While the good intentions are admirable, the truth is that a week’s trip to Sierre Leone isn’t going to end poverty. Burundi isn’t poor because enough volunteer trips haven’t come. And the complex issues rural Ethiopians face is not going to be solved by your visit,” she explains.
Simply traveling, she says, puts money into the local currency and can play a role in boosting its economy.
“As a traveler, everything you buy and every service you need is an opportunity for a local to fill that gap,” Bowden says.
Don’t feel guilty for traveling when there are people in need where you’re sitting back and relaxing, she says.
“Know that you don’t need to rationalize your trip by volunteering. You don’t need to feel guilty for ‘just traveling,’ because in reality, you’re not ‘just traveling,’” Bowden says. “You are putting yourself in a position where you can grow and learn. An environment full of beauty, wonder, adventure, challenge, and opportunities. And by investing in yourself, giving your life what it needs, you open the door for others to do the very same.”
Want to volunteer? Do your research
There are some opportunities for you to do more than travel and sight see if you have the urge to voluntour. But, in order for it to truly make an impact, you’ll need to do some research and ask questions to ensure you’re really giving back.
“It is important to understand what is needed and the time frame. If they are looking for a long term relationship, they will need to see how to best help and plan future visits. The first trip is just a beginning,” Avery says. “It really requires research. Both nonprofits and for-profit groups can have good programs. It is important to understand their source of funds and how they use them. Are administrative costs high? How much actually goes to the charity?”
Asking these types of questions are important when considering any charitable endeavor. After all, people seeking out voluntourism opportunities are looking to have a positive impact; doing the research to maximize your own efforts seems like seems like a smart investment in your own efforts.
And, if you find a way to combine traveling and volunteer work that is truly beneficial to the community, your trip will likely leave you with more than the ability to give help where it’s needed.
“Besides the satisfaction of helping where it may be badly needed, it is a very special way to become a part of and get a better understanding of a local culture – even though temporarily,” Avery says.