Voluntourism is a sticky subject in the travelling community. Who among us hasn’t dreamed of travelling somewhere new, escaping from our own privileged lives to help, give back and try to make the world a better place? It’s a romantic idea that from the outside appears nothing but a rosy selfless act. But in reality, the voluntourism industry is a morally grey area which could actually be doing more unintentional harm than good.
Voluntourism is attractive
I have to admit that a couple of months ago I was almost swayed by a voluntourism venture of my own. It’s amazing how carried away you can get by the thought of travel. Any travel. Any chance to escape the country and visit somewhere new. Throw in the opportunity to gain new experiences and I’m sold.
The post-solo travel blues were hitting me particularly hard. To make matters worse I was unemployed and desperately applying for anything and everything, hopping for an opportunity to sweep me off my feet back into a life of adventure and spontaneity. It was then I came across this glittering opportunity to travel to Costa Rica and carry out environmental research as a volunteer. Truth be told it sounded amazing. 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 for a minimum of three weeks!).
What is voluntourism?
Voluntourism is a form of tourism in which tourists take part in volunteer work, usually for charity. It covers anything from environmental research to construction, helping poor families and working in orphanages. It’s a trend of ‘doing good’ which makes it so appealing, particularly to Western tourists. Yet their ability to do just that has come under heavy criticism as it promotes patronising and unhelpful stereotypes about the countries they visit.
Why is it harmful?
I was already aware of the harmful effects of volunteering at orphanages and how it paves the way for for exploitation. Volunteers are often not properly trained on how to look after the children and instead form friendships with them that may appear sweet but really cause the children psychological trauma when they disappear out of their lives forever. Knowing that this type of voluntourism is a good source of revenue, some orphanages will exploit the child to attract tourists.
Above all, this kind of voluntourism perpetuates the notion that poorer countries need the benevolence of the West; that they’re dependent on it. Where volunteers believe that they’re actually making a positive difference, in reality, their actions don’t come close to tackling the 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 our that voluntourism is an unregulated industry. Much like working with poorer communities and orphanages, volunteering in wildlife conservation can lead the way to animal exploitation and cruelty. Cute orphaned animals are an attractive moneymaker for tourist attractions and although there are some really wonderful ethical sanctuaries out there, it’s also easy to find ones that don’t have the animals’ best interests at heart. So, by visiting and working at these sanctuaries, volunteers may be unwittingly perpetuating animal exploitation.
However, some would argue that voluntourism is unfairly judged. An article by the National Geographic suggested that criticism focused largely on social impact and not on actual 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 has been criticised for hurting local economies but the article pointed out that some volunteer programs hire locals in other capacities: families host and feed volunteers and shops that sell souvenirs and snacks. There’s no doubt that voluntourism has a bad rep but perhaps we’re too quick to write off every volunteering program. 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
- Choose your volunteering activity carefully. Think about the skills you have that could be of use and consider what you want to get out of your volunteering experience. Do you want to add to your CV, make new friends or be a part of a long term change in a community? Having a specific goal in mind will impact the program you participate in and help you find and organisation that reflects your passion.
- Pick the right orgnaisation for your volunteering experience by scrutinising their ethos, where your money is going, what your typical day looks like and the criteria organisations use to select volunteers. If you want to work with children make sure you’ve chosen a responsible organisation. The best way to spot them is to look at their requirements (the stricter the better). Asking for police checks, CVs and interviews are all signs of an ethical organisation.
- Stay well away from orphanages.
- Be aware of exploitative animal sanctuaries and avoid them at all costs.
- Consider doing work in exchange for free food and board. Companies like WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) and Workaway offer an amazing way to gain some work experience while travelling. Slightly more flexible in its range of professions, Workaway lets you sign up for 36 euros a year, pick a job in the country of your choosing and get to know your hosts before flying out to work for them. Similarly WWOOF lets you sign up and offer your labour in exchange for free food and board. Roles are usually agricultural but you gain some amazing experience and skills along the way.