The act of volunteering is viewed by many societies as a core aspect of being human. Volunteering helps build stronger communities, it improves companionship and social inclusion, it can promote a healthy lifestyle and can help individuals gain knowledge and raise awareness on overlooked issues. In the last decade a particular type of volunteerism has gained traction and is highly popular in western society. This type of volunteering, otherwise known as voluntourism, allows individuals to travel abroad for vacation and also participate in voluntary work. It often takes place in middle-lower income countries and voluntourists range in age and come from all over the world. Their volunteering work may be related to agriculture, health care, education, or environmental conservation.
A 2014 study called Mind the Gap Year by Taylor and Francis, critically analyzed current voluntourism promotional material. It discussed the trend of rich young people travelling to various countries with the promise of having a life changing adventure filled with sight seeing and a side of volunteering that would allow them to transform “other” people’s lives. The paper pointed out that if our world didn’t have a history of intervention and the domination of non westernized countries, the basis and goals of many of these programs would be quite questionable. Our society often compensates voluntourists with social/cultural capital and we praise them for ‘helping the less fortunate’, and so on a surface level voluntourism often appears to be entirely positive. However, there are many instances where voluntourism can be entirely negative and have adverse effects on local communities.
Just as a disclaimer, at no point in this article do we wish to belittle or discredit the work being done by non-profit organizations and various humanitarian groups. Our aim is to highlight the ego-centric aspects of volunteer services that do can harm communities.
One criticism of voluntourism is that volunteers are often inexperienced. Many voluntourists lack the skills and the experience needed for whatever area of work they have been assigned and the organizations hosting their work provide very little training. So when it comes to things such building or painting schools and orphanages, the work of voluntourists tends to be of poor quality and unstable. This ends up costing the community in which they are volunteering in more money, time, and energy. Another criticism is that the length of the volunteer aspect of voluntourism is too short. Most voluntourism trips last a maximum of three weeks and this does not allow enough time for volunteers to learn and understand local culture. This often leads to a gap in knowledge between locals and volunteers and can lead to exploitation. Voluntourism can also directly disrupt local economies. A lot of the work that voluntourists do end up putting local laborers such as construction workers, carpenters, farmhands, teachers and local masons out of work. This causes the community to suffer economically all for the sake of inexperienced voluntourists.
All these criticisms clearly show the negative effects of voluntourism but some of the worst incidents involve the exploitation of children. Many studies have shown that voluntourism often promotes the institutionalization of children at places like orphanages. Those in authority often take advantage of children and their parents for the sole purpose of attracting volunteers ready to pay large sums to “help someone in need”. It is believed that around 80% of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent that is capable of taking care of them. In countries such as Nepal, Cambodia, Uganda, and Haiti, parents are urged to send their children to orphanages so that they can receive health care and education. These parents usually agree thinking that their child will get access to a better life, but in reality the orphanages are posting pictures of these children online to solicit support and funds from around the world. Instead of getting education, many of the children are beaten, starved, and forced to do heavy labor.
So what do we need to do to make sure voluntourism is actually bringing positive change to communities and is source of help instead of harm?
When voluntourism is done right it can be very positive. Any voluntourism opportunity must be well-thought out, sustainable, and individuals must research where they will be going and how to adapt to local culture. Organizations that source these volunteer vacations must introduce polices that require workers to have the right set of skills for their assigned line of work and these assigned tasks must be modified so that they don’t disrupt but stimulate local economies. Maybe instead of sending volunteers to teach English to students, they can be assigned to teach English to teachers in local schools which will help them learn more English and improve the way they teach their students. This ensures that local workers aren’t being removed from work and allows the community to strive even after volunteers leave. Voluntourists can help stimulate local economies by buying souvenirs, goods, and food from local markets and restaurants. This will benefit local businesses and create a positive long-term impact.
Together we can make an impact on the health of the nations and the generations to come.
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