Voluntourism

Growing up, I always pictured myself doing something to change the world. It was not about fixing everything, so much as helping one family at a time with their basic needs, starting with their presumed lack of food; I wanted to teach them how to produce it for themselves. Whenever I remember this, I cannot help but to be impressed with my <10 year old self understanding that charity is not enough (not that I had made the link). It is also impressive that I wanted to help on such a small scale and somehow blindly recognized the impact of helping that one family on their whole community. How was I to choose each family? By making my way to the “poorest” country, the “poorest” region there, the “poorest” community there and help the “poorest” family there. After helping them out, I would start all over again to find my next family and all would be funded by my being a famous and rich singer.

This has all changed with time. Still quite the good singer, I have learned much on the topic, which has shifted my goals; being rich and famous sure would help, but I do not have that time or energy! Some pretty great college classes fed my interest in environmentalism and soon after that, I WWOOF’d in Ireland. Considering my lack of experience travelling alone and having no idea where I was going when I arrived, this turned out to be an amazing experience. So great, in fact, that my first summer in university, I decided to volunteer in Ghana at yet another organic farm and also at a daycare and prep school.

What is Voluntourism?

Voluntourism is a part of the tourism industry that incorporates volunteer work in developing countries. As a result, volunteers are also tourists, hence the term voluntourist, but having good intentions are sucked into this marketing trap. Paying voluntourism companies often large sums of money, they are able to see the exotic other, while “doing good”.

Some resources:

Just a few things to check before becoming a voluntourist

Is voluntourism good, then?

I cannot imagine it is all bad, but I have only seen articles of this sort:

  1. Why Voluntourism CAN be Positive“, by Rachel Northover on GoAbroad.com
  2. Does voluntourism do more harm than good?“, by Matthew Jenkin on the guardian
  3. Volunteering / Voluntourism. Good or Bad?” on rovolunteers.com

That being said, I know I have read some great critical blog posts about it; though writers often discuss the topic from a different standpoint – diaspora, development worker, etc., as opposed to voluntourist / voluntourism agency. I have not come across cases that were for the most part not flawed, but I am far from exposed to every case …even in Ghana! As for the examples I have provided, I chose them to point out flaws in just about everything I have read about the good of the industry:

  • No need to look far to find this kind of image

    Many give instructions, rather than fulfilling their headline, like the first one, which merely tells what to look out for. BUT let me tell you: beware how companies portray themselves; look up reviews and even better, blogs -> if I were considering GoAbroad at this time, I would read blogs by their volunteers based in Ghana (the place I would go to) and see what they have to say about their work and the company.

  • As per the second example, voluntourism is far more nuanced than critics claim -> not an easy claim to refute, but an easy claim to make about any side of any debate; nuance still raises red flags!
  • The third example is closest to trying; the author lists some of the most prominent criticisms and responds to each one. Great! Except the responses are limited to fluffy sentences meant to convince readers to try it out anyways; even if readers choose to go with another company, Reach Out Volunteers Charity Ltd still benefits -> when reading something like this, research each point independent of the article. You might realize the critics have got it right!
  • Finally, always look at the source of an article; the first and third examples are written for GoAbroad and Reach Out Volunteers Charity Ltd, respectively; both would benefit from potential customers believing voluntourism of their sort is beneficial.

In that case, is it problematic?

Yes, very much so. Sure, the majority of voluntourists are well-intentionned, but when they work with organizations that essentially exploit them for their money and communities for their products (i.e. placements, accommodations, low-wage labour in the form of local staff, etc.), these intentions are next to useless. When volunteer skills and expertise are lacking, no amount of good intentions can hope to bring about necessary results. When projects are implemented in communities with far different needs, benefit is severely lacking. When companies do not work with the communities, change is unsustainable. I could go on and on, but this is an introductory post. For more general views, see the following articles:

When you read them, keep in mind they are just that: general. They do not go into great detail, are short, but are at least mildly critical. Despite their flaws, they are great starting points, due to their strengths. Over the next little while, I will write some more pointed posts, which will acknowledge the positive, but more importantly, will discuss the flaws in the industry. Through them, you will come to understand why I brought up my personal experiences at the beginning of this post -> besides owning up to the role I have played in the industry.

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