Over the years I’ve seen a lot of advertisements mostly around my university for opportunities to volunteer abroad. Those kind of “have the time of your life and give back to local communities” adverts, that give you the opportunity to travel. However this is one of those grey areas that may seem ethical and moral and like you’re contributing to some social good but when you really think critically about the effect of this kind of travel you might find it’s not as morally sound as you once thought. There’s no denying that almost everyone that goes in for these opportunities are doing so with good intentions but at the end of the day it’s still tourism, it’s still often a business that arranges it which of course want profit and of course there are historical and institutional implications that are worth considering when you’re seeking to volunteer abroad.
I’m by no means any kind of expert in this field, but after reading articles that echo my own views I’m going to set out some of my thoughts on the subject that demonstrate why I’m generally against Voluntourism.
The ‘White Saviour’ Issue
Ok, I acknowledge that not everyone volunteering abroad is ethnically white. This should really be call the privileged saviour issue. But think about it. As a British citizen, I’m part of a country with a long long history of colonisation, violence and exploitation of third world countries. In effect this history has contributed to their situation today, it’s undeniable. White people, particularly from countries that have a prominent history of colonisation (Western European states) have caused a lot of problems for ethnic minorities and third world countries and they still do.
Enter the voluntourist. They’re from a middle class background, they’re white, they’re educated. They’re placed in a community in a third world country to do something like build a house, where they’re largely unaware of local custom and culture. They want to help, and they have good intentions but in reality it’s another form of intervention in third world countries. If they wanted to help local people why not send money so that someone can hire a local worker to build a house for them. This would stimulate the economy and actually give a salary to someone local. But instead they make the trek across the world to do it themselves, to make them feel good about having ‘helped’. I’d argue that this is more of a selfish need to help. To feel good about themselves spiritually rather than to actually contribute to communities in a meaningful way.
Voluntourists lack skills needed
To add to this problem often voluntourists don’t actually possess the required level of skill to do things like build houses, install water pumps etc. There have been stories of voluntourists that haven’t been trained to do these things at all but they still go out and haphazardly build houses, that have to be torn down and redone in the night.
If you consider also that volunteers coming to do things FOR local people rather than teaching local people how to do things for themselves how can this contribute meaningfully to their lives? Surely many locals would rather that they’re taught to do these things for themselves and then supplies and equipment can be donated if people really feel the need to contribute. Places like Africa already have a lot of unskilled labourers, who are capable of the same thing as a volunteer, all they need are the salary and the resources just like the Volunteers whose salary is based on self-fulfillment rather than on money.
The effect of the voluntourism industry is often only based on short term results. Companies want volunteers to be able to feel like they’ve accomplished something like building a house.
Organisations rather than locals decide what needs to be done
This brings us on to the final point, that the organisations which are often international corporations, don’t have input from the local communities. They decide what gets done rather than the people who its going to affect. The placements are built around the volunteer and their fulfilment rather than what the local community needs. It’s a commercial company, how else are they going to attract potential ‘volunteers’?
There are also incidences where voluntourism has caused child-trafficking in order to fill orphanages with children for the volunteers to ‘help’ which is one of the worst consequences. Another is that volunteers are taking local jobs which would help improve the poor economy.
What if I still want to Volunteer Abroad?
This article doesn’t mean to discourage people from volunteering abroad point blank. That’s not my intention, my intention is to inform and whenever you think about volunteering you need to be mindful of the fact that you may not be helping as much as you’d like to think and acknowledge that you’re probably doing it for personal fulfilment reasons. In my opinion there’s still a difference between voluntourism and volunteering.
Look for positions where you have actual skills that local people might lack and do your research into the reputation of any companies that are advertising these positions. Be wary about volunteering with children, aside from the risk of child-trafficking think about how your presence and then your sudden absence might affect them in later life.
Companies which have touristic overtones and put the emphasis on the volunteer rather than the culture and local issues will raise red flags. If you can look for organisations which emphasis decision making and leadership from locals rather than people far removed from the community.
But most importantly acknowledge that a lot of companies are looking to cash in on your good heartedness and be vigilant against this.
There are a whole host of informative articles and reports that you can read for more information on the subject. Below are some of them that I read to help me write this article coherently.