Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

A while back I did some work experience for a start-up travel company. This job involved blogging on the topic of travel, and exploration.

Unfortunately this company never took off, but I wrote a blog post on voluntourism that I am pretty proud of, and so I thought I would share it on here with all my internet buds. I hope you enjoy it!

Voluntourism is one of the fastest growing trends in the travel industry today. You may have heard of it, if you have it was probably from a gap year student with dreadlocks, wearing a hemp shirt, talking about their latest spiritual journey helping children in a Cambodian orphanage. We all know the stereotype, right?

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If you haven’t heard of it, you will soon. Voluntourism is a form of tourism during which travellers participate in some form of voluntary work, often for a non-governmental organisation or as part of an aid programme. And, my goodness, do a lot of tourists do this. A study all the way back in 2008 showed that in that year, more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists spent $2 billion as voluntourists. The number has grown since then.

On the surface, voluntourism looks like a great idea. One person gets to travel to a new place, experience new cultures, whilst also helping others. Win-win, right? Sadly, not.

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I hate to admit it, but when I first started thinking about the impacts of voluntourism, I was pretty naïve. People volunteer out of the goodness of their hearts, they want to make a difference, so what’s the problem?

Turns out, quite a few problems are implicated with this increasingly popular form of tourism.

I think the main problem lies not in the concept of volunteering, but with the organisations that arrange so many of these volunteering trips. They have transformed the simple concept of volunteering into a service, a commodity through which money can be made. Delivering aid has become a money-making tool, and because of this many of these agencies are driven primarily by profit, not by humanitarian motives. Yes, morally this is bad, but in a more literal sense, this means that the work of the agencies are often catered more towards the desires of the volunteer as opposed to the needs of various charities. This can result in volunteers being sent to a place that does not match their skill set, and this is when the work of voluntourists can become not just irrelevant, but detrimental to an area.

Volunteering, particularly during a gap year, has become almost like a rite of passage. With the growing global inequality, the desire for ‘Westerners’ to go and volunteer in the developing world has also grown. Questions must be asked as to the motivation of these young, wealthy volunteers. Is this a way of giving back, or an exercise to gain ‘likes’ on social media platforms or to bulk out a CV?

Perhaps this misplaced eagerness to volunteer is more effectively illustrated by social media campaigns undertaken by voluntourists. Hashtags like #InstagrammingAfrica are popular with students on international health brigades, as are #medicalbrigades, #globalhealth, and of course the classic nostalgic hashtag #takemeback.

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Cynical as this may sound, volunteers looking to fill their gap year with ‘worthwhile’ activities often enter communities with little or no understanding of the locals’ history, culture, and ways of life. All that is known is the presumed neediness of the community, and the positive impact that the volunteering is going to have on the local people. This image of the (usually western) volunteer as the benevolent giver, and the community members as  grateful receivers of charity is damaging. It reinforces the global north-south divide, and strengthens the concept of the white man as a ‘saviour’.

This was highlighted when I travelled to Burundi to work with a non-governmental organisation that was focused on sustainable development. This NGO had built a school and a hospital, from its origins as an orphanage during the civil war in the country. Walking through the small town in which the NGO operated, I was greeted by stares, and the shouts of ‘Muzungu’, meaning foreigner, or white person.

Because I was a ‘Muzungu’, it was assumed that I would have money or chocolate to give to people, and children would follow me with their arms outstretched. Has the rise in voluntourism contributed to this image of a rich, benevolent westerner ‘helping’ vulnerable communities? And can this be seen as an extension of colonialism, the final remnants of the concept by which western countries went on ‘civilising’ missions to less wealthy countries?

There has been a backlash against the growing voluntourism sector. Take, for example, the campaign #endhumanitariandouchery. This organisation outlines their mission as trying to put an end to ‘irresponsible voluntourism… volunteering for the wrong reasons, doing the wrong kind of work, or having a problematic mindset’. To spot these humanitarian douches, End Humanitarian Douchery have compiled a list of the seven sins of humanitarian douchery. This list includes characteristics such as: lusting for likes, referring to the social media aspect of volunteering abroad, and ragingly enlightened wrath.

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End Humanitarian Douchery believe that the solution to irresponsible voluntourism is ‘fair trade learning’. Basically, this is learning the difference between helpful volunteering and ‘douchey’ volunteering. The way you can volunteer in a ‘fair trade’ manner is to not view aid as a commodity, but as a humanitarian activity, one that is done to help another, with no ulterior motive. To be a helpful volunteer is to be responsible, mature and realistic in your decision making.

More sinister than the dreadlocked ‘Gap Yah’ student not being able to teach English properly are the mounting concerns that the desire to work in orphanages in countries is actually be leading to the abandonment or even abduction of children from their parents to fuel the growing interest of voluntourists. This worrying trend is yet another illustration of the way in which voluntourism has become a business, and the ‘aid receivers’ have thus become commodities.

You may call me a hypocrite, but I am going to volunteer at an orphanage in Goa, India next month. This is a region of the world that I have always wanted to travel to, but to stay in one place for such a long time without having a purpose is not an idea that appeals to me. I wanted to have the chance to get to know people from the region, and yes, to help others. It’s hard nowadays to say that phrase without sounding like a clichéd ‘Gap Yah’ student.

But I don’t think this is necessarily hypocritical. When considering volunteer work,  the best way to navigate the rocky waters of voluntourism is to look at your own reasons for volunteering. To weigh up the pros and cons from a personal perspective; are you doing something you really care about, or is this an exercise to spruce up your CV? If so, could this be done more effectively by getting a job back at home? Are you bringing skills to a region that you believe will actually do some good, or do yo just want to travel? No one will judge you if you decide that actually it may be more beneficial to just travel to an area.

Don’t get me wrong, volunteering can be worthwhile, but think hard about where you are going to go, and what you are going to do. Are you really going to be benefitting the local area, do you have skills that would be valuable?

It may be more beneficial to go to an area, stay as a tourist, but a conscious one, spending your money with local businesses, as opposed to with big businesses. Doing your bit to preserve the local environment and wildlife. Going to cafés and speaking to the locals. And yes, English- speaking people, maybe even learning a few words of the national language!

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