Sustainability made simple

Voluntourism: An Industry That Does More Harm Than Good?

Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / JoshuaWoroniecki

Voluntourism, the practice of combing volunteering with travel abroad, can negatively affect the impacted communities. However, it can also be done ethically and sustainably.

Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, is a way of traveling on a budget while volunteering your time with an organization. The structure usually combines travel in a certain area with part-time volunteer work.

Volunteers are typically short-term and unskilled workers who stick around for a few days to several weeks. Most often, people come from wealthy Western nations to volunteer in underserved communities in the global south.

Four common categories of voluntourism are environmental, animal, social and healthcare work. Environmental volunteer work may be on a farm or conservation project, while animal volunteer work could be at a wildlife sanctuary or rescue facility. Social volunteer work includes teaching, working with children, and community development. Meanwhile, healthcare can cover duties like volunteering in a nursing home.

Voluntourism comes in many different forms. Your local church or temple may have projects set up, or you can look for projects advertised by large corporations like Projects Abroad.

Benefits of Voluntourism

Voluntourism is one way to travel to beautiful destinations.
Voluntourism is one way to travel to beautiful destinations.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / cocoparisienne)

Voluntourism can be an educational experience and a good opportunity to see the world. Its main benefits include:

  • Inexpensive travel: Volunteering opportunities may cover the costs of room and board, or charge very low fees, giving people the opportunity to travel to beautiful places on a budget.
  • Unique experience: Voluntourism provides visitors with the unique experience of working in the community, rather than a typical vacation.
  • Benefitting local communities: Volunteering can do a lot of good, particularly when volunteers bring skills and training with them which match the needs of the place they are visiting. This is especially helpful when volunteers can pass on their skills to locals who can benefit from them in the long term.

Drawbacks of Voluntourism

While the benefits of voluntourism are enticing, they are certainly outweighed by the downside. Here are some of the biggest drawbacks:

  • Increased workload for locals: Voluntourism has the potential to hurt local communities in several ways. For example, when volunteers are acting as unskilled labor, this can actually cause more work for the locals, who have to take time to explain projects and fix work that has been done incorrectly. This is especially common in certain projects such as construction, where skilled labor is necessary. 
  • Neglect of local desires: Research shows one of the negatives of voluntourism is neglect of locals’ desires. Oftentimes, volunteers have the mindset that any help is beneficial, regardless of what it is. This deters them from paying attention to what locals actually need, and may result in unsatisfactory work or unhelpful contributions. 
  • Replacing local jobs: Volunteers from abroad have the potential to fill positions that could have been paid jobs for locals who need them. In fact, the same study showed that voluntourism can disrupt local economies. 
  • Short-term solutions: Volunteers only work for short periods of time, which makes it difficult for communities to rely on them. Either there is constant turnover of volunteers or positions are only temporarily filled, leaving locals scrambling to make due when they are gone. Either way, many types of voluntourism are not sustainable. The Center for Girls criticizes this practice for taking away from locally-driven development which would be a more productive solution compared to unknown volunteers from outside the community. 
  • Colonialist: Voluntourism has been criticized for reinforcing colonialism by perpetuating the idea that Westerners are needed to help develop countries and communities. 
  • Exploitation of locals: In the worst cases, voluntourism can lead to the exploitation of locals. This is especially apparent when volunteers work with children. When a constant flow of volunteers is introduced into children’s lives, this exposes them to potential physical and sexual abuse and even human trafficking. These considerations should be taken seriously, and anyone engaging in voluntourism should make an effort to check that the organizations they are working with have systems in place for protecting children from these types of crimes. In other ways, voluntourism can exploit both locals and you when corporate agencies charge hefty fines for joining a project. In fact, voluntourism is now reportedly a $173 billion industry.
  • Child separation and attachment issues: Oftentimes institutions that provide voluntourism opportunities with children lead to negative impacts on children and families. These organizations may encourage parents to give up their children to orphanages, for example. The in-and-out volunteers also contribute to attachment disorders in children who already lack healthy and secure parental relationships.

How to Volunteer Abroad Ethically

Volunteer your time and skills in a way that benefits both you and the local community.
Volunteer your time and skills in a way that benefits both you and the local community.
(Foto: CC0 / Pixabay / nutraveller)

Despite the many negative potential outcomes of voluntourism, it can be done ethically and sustainably if you are careful.

1. Match your skills to the project

Think about what concrete skills you can contribute while volunteering (teaching, social work, nursing, IT, etc.) and find a project which is in need of those skills. If you don’t have any skills that would be useful to the community, think realistically about what you can contribute.

If the project says no knowledge or experience is required, think about why that is. Projects working with children or in construction, for example, are likely better suited for experienced and paid locals, for example. It may be best for you to avoid volunteer work until you have real knowledge to use and share.

Alternatively, you can look into projects where you can help out even without a specific skillset, for example, beach clean-ups or natural disaster aid distribution. Just make sure to think about whether your presence could be more harmful than it is hurtful. 

2. Contact projects directly

International agencies charge huge fees which go to their own costs rather than those of the community you want to help. Projects Abroad, for example, charges thousands of dollars for one-week trips to far-away countries to work on environmental conservation projects, medical internships and more. In reality, you only need a fraction of these fees to get yourself a plane ticket and get to work.

Save your money, cut out the middleman, and contact projects directly so that you know your time and money is going directly to the organization you are working with. 

A good starting point: Environmental Organizations: 8 NGOs and Non-Profits Worth Supporting

3. Volunteer long-term

Make sure to travel for long enough that you will really make a difference. Talk to the project organizers before you arrange your stay, and ask them what is the ideal time period for you to volunteer. The job may require a training period at the start, so many organizations look for volunteers who can stay for a reasonable amount of time following their training. The Center for Girls recommends volunteering for a time period of at least two months, for example. 

4. Be respectful

Avoid posting pictures of locals to your social media accounts without their consent. Do not post pictures of children you’re working with unless expressly asked to do so by the organization and with the permission of the child or their guardian. While these actions may seem harmless, they can contribute to exploitation. Be sure to consider your motivations behind taking pictures and posting them.

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