Responsible voluntourism?

Responsible voluntourism?


Years ago, when I started volunteering overseas, it was simpler… the “voluntourism” industry hadn’t actually exploded and caused damage to what was otherwise a potentially beautiful force of good in the world: international volunteering. So, when I see old pictures of myself volunteering in Tanzania, Romania, Nepal, Cambodia and elsewhere… I tend to cringe a bit and immediately wonder if I look like just another foolish foreigner who is ignorantly causing harm to the communities where she most wishes to offer time and love and support.

But I have to remember a few things:

>> I do my research: There are volunteer-sending organizations out there doing harm, and there are also those doing good. I choose to work with organizations that I’ve researched extensively, to ensure that they do NOT engage in voluntourism. That means I investigate the partnerships they build, to see that the work done is sustainable and extends work already being done by the community. It also means that I ensure no local workers are displaced – rather, they are supported by the volunteers.

>> I check my intent: I am operating from an impulse of compassion, and a desire to support. I do not wish to fix or change or correct anything. It’s as though I see a group of friends pushing a large boulder up a hill… and so I simply put my shoulder against it too.

>> I consider financial donation instead: Yes, there are times when it may be more effective to give the money you would otherwise spend on your volunteer placement directly to the people/project who will benefit from the volunteer work (… as if it were as simple as that!). But in doing so, you are missing the point… international volunteering is not a financial transaction. It is an investment of time and love; it is an act of solidarity and unity. If you have never stood beside someone in the scorching heat, someone with whom you can only communicate with gestures and laughter, and you have not felt the intense shared humanity of that beautiful moment, then you are missing the deeper meaning behind international volunteering altogether.

>> I am open to being changed: And finally, I firmly believe, and have always said: the most profound impact you make will never be on the place you travel, it will be on your own heart and mind, and in the changed perspective you bring back home and share with others.

So, let’s dig in… What are the dangers of voluntourism and what are the benefits? And how does one volunteer overseas without accidentally engaging in or supporting the dark side of voluntourism?

The dark side of voluntourism:

Here’s an excellent summary of the problems with voluntourism by international volunteer-sending agency, Globalteer:

  • Orphanage volunteering: Studies have repeatedly shown that orphanages do more harm than good in child development. However, people still frequently volunteer at orphanages in the developing world. These institutions often expose the children to terrible conditions, abuse and sometimes even human trafficking. In fact, according to British charity Lumos, 80% of children in orphanages actually have a living parent. Parents send their children to orphanages because they believe they will have better opportunities. These orphanages often survive due to foreign donations and foreign volunteers. But they really just perpetuate the harmful institutionalisation of children and divert funds away from potential aid that would enable families to look after their own children and thus keep the family together.
  • Unskilled volunteers for construction missions: Another common problem is that volunteers often don’t have the skills or experience necessary to help. For example, groups of students are often tasked with building wells or schools but have no knowledge of construction. As a result, they do poor job while simultaneously taking away paid work from qualified locals. There is a place for volunteers carrying out physical tasks, but always in support of trained, paid local staff.
  • Misuse of donations: Frequently, the money that volunteers bring in is used to improve the experience for future volunteers, not for the actual  work. Thus, the organisation starts to run more like a tourist organisation than a charity. Similarly, volunteers are often more concerned about their own experience and pay less attention to the actual impact they are having on the community.
  • Focus on short-term solutions: Volunteering may distract from the structural issues behind poverty and inequality. Thus, organisations and governments alike may use volunteering as an excuse not to invest in long-term solutions to deeper issues, ultimately leaving levels of poverty and inequality unchanged.
  • Encourages dependency: Voluntourism has frequently been referred to as a form of neo-colonialism, which is true in certain cases. For example, it can often perpetuate the notion that developing countries require the help of “superior” westerners to improve their situation. In reality, what they need is better trained locals and improved infrastructure.

The bright side of voluntourism:

Although the criticisms of volunteer vacations are valid and serious, there is significant, positive potential when voluntourism is done right:

  • Impact: If the voluntourism opportunity is well-thought out and sustainable, a volunteer’s actions can have long-term impact. For instance, instead of going abroad to teach English to students, why not help local teachers already living in that community      improve their English and their teaching methods. In this way, jobs are not taken away from local workers. The community is left with a wealth of knowledge so current and future teachers, as well as their students, can benefit from it.
  • Skills share: If you have a particular skill that you can share with locals, this can make a real difference for the future of a community. For instance, if you are a physiotherapist, you can teach some workshops to local doctors. Similarly, if you are a doctor, you could help provide medical care to underprivileged communities that cannot afford to pay or don’t have access to the healthcare they need. The fact is, voluntourism can have a large impact if the work an individual is doing matches their skillset.
  • Cultural understanding: Learning about a new culture is a huge benefit to travel, and this is no different with voluntourism. The opportunity to immerse yourself in a community, to surround yourself with new friends and activities and to see first-hand the issues a community faces, broadens your scope of the world and your understanding of the complex nature of poverty and sustainable development.
  • Economic benefit: Travel stimulates local economies, and voluntourists can do just that when they purchase goods from local markets, go on tours / excursions on their days off, and eat at local restaurants. This is great for businesses in the community and country.
  • Encourages independence: When a development project (and a community need) is articulated by the community itself (and not by the volunteer-sending organization),      including how it leads to sustainability and independence for that group / community, then volunteer participation can be very beneficial. In this case, even successive volunteer teams on short missions can ultimately contribute to the long-term      development of an individual or community.

Questions to ask yourself before volunteering overseas:

  • Am I qualified to do what you are signing up for? If not, it’s best to look at another project.
  • Would I be allowed to do this in my home country? If not, for whatever reason, you shouldn’t do it anywhere else either, even if the overseas organisation would let you.
  • Should I donate instead? Sometimes it would be better for the organisation and those they help to simply receive donations rather than volunteers. This goes back to finding the right organisation to volunteer abroad with.
  • Do I understand why the project is necessary? Have you looked into the current and historic political and economic reasons for the current situation? Do you understand the measures that are necessary to improve the situation in the long-term? Is the organisation aware of them too?
  • Imagine you weren’t allowed to tell anyone what you were doing or to post any photos on social media – would you still volunteer? If the answer is no, then you may not have the right intention to be an effective volunteer.

What to look for in a volunteer-sending agency:

  • They are working with locals in each country to answer the needs that the locals themselves identify. This means partner projects are staffed by locals and volunteers simply provide extra support and complete jobs that the permanent local staff don’t have time for.
  • They are seeking long-term solutions. Importantly, they should be promoting and supporting sustainable development in every community they support.
  • They are not a business. The volunteer-sending agency should be a registered charitable organization that holds itself to high standards of social and financial ethics. This means 100% of the money received goes back into the charity and the projects they support. They should also run background checks on all our applicants to projects with children to ensure the children are in the safest possible environment.
  • They support exchange of knowledge. This means they ensure that all volunteer placements are genuinely contributing to the projects and that the volunteers’ skills are being put to the best use possible. Ideally, where applicable, they also encourage volunteers to teach any relevant skills to local staff so they may continue the volunteers’ work once they leave. The idea is to always move toward the goal that volunteers are no longer necessary.

Key takeaways…

  • Voluntourism is not inherently bad – it can be, and is, done well by various organizations. The onus is on you to do the research and make responsible choices.
  • Done poorly, voluntourism may lead to dependency, child exploitation, misuse of donations and the unemployment of skilled locals.
  • Done well, voluntourism may contribute to independence, sustainable development, skills exchange, cultural understanding and long-term positive impact.
  • Ask yourself, “Why do I want to volunteer abroad?” Are you looking for gratification, or do you have a genuine desire to serve vulnerable communities? Examine your heart and your intentions.
  • Choose a cause you’re passionate about, then research, research, research!
  • Lend your strengths, not your weaknesses.
  • Choose a charity that partners with local workers, instead of taking jobs away from them.
  • Ensure that your organization, its projects and partners accomplish “sustainable development” (i.e. development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs).

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[I wrote this blog post for my current passion project, called “Heart in Hand“. Part world boutique and part volunteer movement, Heart in Hand is all about connecting people across borders. The website (www.heartinhand.ca) also includes a blog to feature stories about the artisans / partners who make our beautiful fair trade products, and who make possible our international volunteer excursions.]

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