Is ‘voluntourism’ a corporate advantage more than anything else?

Volunteering abroad Is often seen as a noble cause- each year many ambitious students and hard-working adults engage in community or environmental projects around the world to play their part in making the world “a better place”. From building schools to organizing craft activities in orphanages, volunteers excitingly grasp what is seen as a unique opportunity to create positive change while experiencing a foreign culture and traveling to new places. But are “socially-conscious holiday-makers”[1] who are often clueless really much help? It can be said without doubt that they do make a difference however it would be foolish to assume it is always for the better…

Voluntourism is one of the fastest growing industries on the planet. In a 2008 report by Tourism Research and Marketing (TRAM) it was revealed that $2 dollars are spent annually for 1.6 million people to travel to Asia, Africa and South America and work in impoverished communities. Over the course of five years, the market was estimated to have grown 5-10% in Western Europe, despite the recession. If anything how do these growth rates not reflect the profiteering nature of voluntourism? Volunteer organizations asking $2,500 for 3 weeks in St. Louis, Guadeloupe, raises serious questions on whether prices are being abused. Even if the majority of the funds raised will be directed towards charitable causes, NGOs and community organizations are not immune to error and can largely misspend the donations they receive. As seen with foreign aid, only a small amount ends up being invested in a sustainable way while the rest of the available funds tends to result in harm- by encouraging corruption, damaging local enterprise and feeding into a ‘dependency culture’.

Volunteering abroad is a serious commitment and the lack of oversight means many charities go by unregulated and free from quality standards. As such, it is worth noting that most volunteers do not have any practical skills but their willingness to pay crowds out the demand for local workers. Hence contractors would rather bring in wealthy students for a building job than hire skilled stonemasons. It is expected that the students will pay a significant amount of money to come and thus they are the best option. Moreover, most charities do not even require that tourists to go through the tests and police checks that we would require care-workers to do at home. People as young as 18 can teach English in local schools, construct buildings or work in hospitals. This is dangerous, however, when they interact with vulnerable people such as children and can easily and unintentionally expose them to risks. The lack of care charities have demonstrated goes to show that a ‘white savior complex’ still exists.

One booming sector of voluntourism is “orphan tourism” where squalid orphanages prey on travelers’ feelings of guilt and pity and lure them into ‘helping’ out with the children. Multiple reports suggest that such action, although full with good intentions, may severely affect the psychological health of children through creating unstable attachments and traumatic experiences of loss. it is estimated that only about a quarter of orphans have actually lost their parents- the majority have been either bought, rented or simply taken from their parents. In Ghana for instance, it was found that only eight out of 148 orphanages were licensed and about 10% of 4,500 children had no parents. As shown in a BVBC international volunteers can be more detrimental than helpful. One should think twice therefore before becoming captivated by the cute smiles that feature on volunteer organizations’ websites.

"But before going on a trip, travelers should do their research and have a clear idea of what they can offer to the local community. If they do not, perhaps a better way to make a difference would be by looking into their own communities and trying to see how for instance they can hold their governments accountable for taking part in unfair trade deals that create the ‘need’ for volunteers abroad in the first place."

This is not to say there is something fundamentally wrong with volunteering abroad. But before going on a trip, travelers should do their research and have a clear idea of what they can offer to the local community. If they do not, perhaps a better way to make a difference would be by looking into their own communities and trying to see how for instance they can hold their governments accountable for taking part in unfair trade deals that create the ‘need’ for volunteers abroad in the first place. Or another worthwhile cause would be to lobby against the strict loan terms upheld by the IMF or World Bank. The key is in creating long-term solutions and spending two weeks in Tanzania to paint a school and “teach” does not do the trick.

Sources: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/jan/13/concerns-unregulated-volunteer-tourism-industry

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/nov/14/orphans-cambodia-aids-holidays-madonna

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-travel-volunteers-charities-idUSKCN0P91AX20150629

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/jan/13/concerns-unregulated-volunteer-tourism-industry