Last Updated on 23/12/2020
Voluntourism is a tricky subject in the travel industry. Who amongst us hasn’t dreamed of escaping our own privileged lives to help make the world a better place? It’s a romantic idea that, from the outside, appears to be nothing but a perfectly innocent and selfless act. It should be, but in reality, it’s not that simple. Despite all our best intentions, voluntourism can actually do more harm than good.
What is voluntourism?
The term ‘voluntourism’ is short for ‘volunteer tourism’. It entails tourists giving up their time and money for free to work for organisations or charities outside of their home countries. Voluntourism covers anything from environmental research to construction, lending a hand to poor families and working with children.
Voluntourism stems from the appeal to do good and to alleviate poverty and suffering. It’s a selfless act that underpins a personal desire for experiential transformation.
It’s a trend which is particularly popular with tourists from the west. Yet, this ‘doing good’ philosophy has come under heavy criticism because of the problems it unwittingly creates.
Voluntourism is an attractive venture
I have a confession to make. I was almost tempted into going on a voluntourism experience of my own. It’s easy to do if, like me, you get carried away by the thought of travel (guilty). Any chance to escape to somewhere far away is positively thrilling. Throw in the opportunity to gain new experiences and I’m sold.
This glittering opportunity was packaged as a trip to Costa Rica to carry out environmental research as a volunteer. I was hooked on the possibility of adventure and spontaneity.
Here was a chance to work alongside scientists doing vital work for the preservation of the planet. In a nutshell, it would have been a dream come true if it wasn’t for the shockingly high fees (about £2,000 to volunteer for a minimum of three weeks and that doesn’t include the flights!).
Why can voluntourism be bad?
The voluntourism industry has been criticised for promoting patronising and unhelpful stereotypes of the countries that volunteers visit.
Dr Mary Mostafanezhad of the University of Otago did extensive ethnographic research into the effects of voluntourism and found that ‘volunteer tourists aestheticize the host community members’ poverty as authentic and cultural.’ Simply put, voluntourism aids the idea of poverty being an authentic cultural trait and not political. Why or how someone came to be poor is overshadowed.
Dr Mostafanezhad also goes on to mention that voluntourism can perpetuate the notion that poorer countries need the benevolence of the west; that they depend on it.
Where volunteers believe that they’re making a positive difference, their actions don’t come close to tackling the causes of suffering.
Critics argue that voluntourists lack the relevant skills needed to carry out a lot of the work and they’re not required to commit to long-term involvement either. Instead, they pay huge amounts of money to take the place of someone who would be more qualified for the position.
Critics also point out that voluntourism is an unregulated industry. For example, volunteering in wildlife conservation can encourage animal exploitation and cruelty. Cute orphaned animals are an attractive moneymaker for tourist attractions.
Although there are some really brilliant ethical sanctuaries out there, it’s also easy to find ones that don’t have the animal’s best interests at heart. By visiting and volunteering at these sanctuaries, volunteers may sadly be accidental perpetrators of animal exploitation.
Orphanages are another voluntourist pitfall. Volunteers are not often properly trained in how to look after the children. Instead, they form friendships with them that may appear sweet but actually cause psychological trauma when they disappear out of their lives forever.
Some orphanages are well aware that voluntourism is a good source of revenue for them and they will use children as bait to attract tourists.
Is there a positive side to voluntourism?
There is a good side to voluntourism and some would even argue that the industry is unfairly judged. An article by National Geographic suggested that criticism focused largely on the social impact rather than local perspectives. It argued that volunteers, for the most part, are some of the most genuine and helpful people you will ever meet.
Voluntourism is also a way for projects to gain volunteer labour if they don’t have much funding, for international friendships to form and for cross-cultural learning that benefits all.
Voluntourism is criticised for harming local economies because organisations choose to use volunteers from overseas rather than local employees. National Geographic points out that some volunteer programmes hire locals in other capacities. Families are employed to host and feed volunteers and shops provide souvenirs and snacks.
There’s no doubt that voluntourism has a bad reputation but perhaps it’s unfair to write off every single volunteer programme.
One thing I can be sure of is that the industry must go through some serious reforms to ensure that we never have to second guess the involvement of exploitation again.
How to volunteer responsibly
There are some really wonderful voluntourism projects out there that deserve our support. How can we distinguish the good ones from the bad? Here are a few key points to remember:
- Avoid orphanages at all costs. It will save you from a lot of ethical pitfalls.
- Be very wary of animal sanctuaries until you have no doubt in your mind that they’re not exploitative.
- Choose your volunteer programme carefully. Think about whether you have any skills that could be of use. Do you have a science background? Teaching? Medical?
- Have a specific goal in mind when you volunteer. Do you want to add to your CV, make new friends or be a part of a long term change in a community? Figuring out your goals will help you find an organisation that reflects your passion.
- Scrutinise the organisation to make sure they’re responsible. The most ethical programmes will be transparent about where your money is going, what your typical day looks like and the criteria they use to select volunteers.
- If you want to work with children, make sure you choose a responsible organisation. The best way to spot them is to look at their requirements (the stricter the better). If they ask for police checks and CVs and conduct interviews before accepting volunteers then it’s a good sign.
Alternatives to voluntourism
If you’re keen to do some volunteer work abroad, why not work in exchange for free food and board instead? Organisations such as WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and Workaway offer amazing ways to gain work experience while travelling.
Workaway has a flexible range of professions to choose from. You can sign up for just 36 euros a year and pick the country you want to work in. Before your job is confirmed, you can make sure it’s right for you by getting to know your hosts online first.
WWOOF offers agricultural work in exchange for free food and board. Simply sign up to the WWOOF organisation in the country you want to work in and get a membership for a year. You can then liaise with hosts to find the volunteer experience that works for you.
Want to learn more about WWOOF and how it all works? Read my guide to how to travel the world with WWOOF.
Voluntourism is a morally grey area. Although it appears to have some benefits, this travel activity also has multiple problems that we can’t ignore. Do you agree that voluntourism does more harm than good? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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