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So you want to be a voluntourist?

How beneficial is volunteer tourism to developing communities?

Submitted 3/4/2010 By lilymorrissey Views 4798 Comments 1 Updated 5/10/2011

Photographer : L Shave @ flickr

In our times of cheap air travel, ergonomically designed backpacks, and heightened social consciousness, increasing numbers of young people from western countries are mixing their travels with volunteer work.

Voluntourism has exploded over the last few decades, with the voluntourist market now peaking at US$2.6bn per year. Like shopping for a new shampoo, would-be volunteers can peruse thousands of online Volunteer Sending Organisations (VSOs) for programs all over the developing world. From rescuing miniature monkeys in the Amazon to teaching orphans English in Somalia, voluntourist programs have been lavished with praise from outlets as diverse as CNN and National Geographic Traveller.

Why the love affair?

The general consensus to date has been that volunteer tourism is good for everyone because it:

  • Fosters selflessness and cultural awareness
  • Brings people from different parts of the global village together
  • Brings revenue to the developing community
  • Utilizes volunteer labor for underfunded projects
  • and Promotes ecological sustainability.

One participant in the US based Earthwatch Programme which toured conservation projects of central America sums it up in her voluntourist diary:

‘Volunteers obviously provide free manpower to the scientists, but more importantly, upon our return home, we can raise awareness of the issues we witnessed with our own eyes’.

Sounds great! So what’s the problem?

You are a child living in an orphanage in Thailand that is dependent on the funds and labour of voluntourists. They come to teach you English for several weeks each, comically and monotonously repeating the same introductory lessons over and over. You have a perfect grasp of ‘Hi, how are you’, and ‘My name is’, but you never have the same teacher long enough to get any further. You don’t understand these people, and you have learned not to get too attached. Why do they all keep trying to teach you the same thing? And where are they going in such a hurry? Unfortunately, I didn’t make this story up; according to Pierre De Hanscutter, president of SJVietnam (a youth non-profit VSO) it’s being written into chapter one of thousands of lives right now. His is just one of a number of critical voices which are raising themselves above the top of the warm and fuzzy clamour. These voices say that voluntourism can result in:

  • Programs which ignore locals’ real wants and needs
  • Work being left unfinished or done badly due to voluntourists lack of skills
  • Voluntourists taking jobs from locals and creating dependance on foreign donors
  • Feelings of differences being reinforced rather than broken down because of the obvious gap in wealth and power between volunteers and people they are ‘helping’.
  • Voluntourists coming away from the experience feeling as though they have ‘done their bit’ and don’t need to do any more, either in their own country or elsewhere.
  • The presence of volunteers changing the local culture and economy so that communities lose their culture and traditions.
  • Volunteers feeding corrupt practises by handing cash over to dodgy organisations.

Development volunteer and journalist J.B MacKinnon worries that voluntourism is becoming a 'consumer experience' catering to the needs of the paying volunteer. After a quick glance at a couple of VSO websites I could see his point. Rather than talk about the needs of communities and matching skills to positions, they promise an easy ‘adventure experience’ so you can be ‘doing something different’ and pursuing ‘personal development’. The alarm bells started ringing: exactly who is this industry working for?

For a few enterprising people, it’s working very, very well. Many voluntourism programs come with a hefty price tag attached, and few programs have transparent systems of accountability. Take Sarah’s account of her experience in Ghana.

She and 17 others each contributed AU$1500 to build toilets over six weeks, pooling a budget of $27,000 in a community where the average villager earns $5 per month. ‘So imagine how I felt’, she writes, ‘when I discovered that our accommodation was not paid for, the utilities were not paid for, the builder’s time was unpaid, and the only thing our budget seemed to be used for was to purchase a couple of effluent pipes…So, what happened to the $27,000? You tell me… If you contacted a Chief or Assembly Man in a local community in a country like Ghana…you could use your $1500 to help those who really needed it’.

So if volunteer tourism is such a minefield, why do it at all?

The thing about voluntourism is that there is no real way of measuring it’s effects, so arguments either for or against are mostly based on individual experiences. If a young American develops a social conscience as a result of a stint of voluntouring, and goes on to invest ethically in their fifties, how can you ever say for sure that one led to the other?

So basically the only way that you can navigate the voluntourism minefield is with a little common sense and a grain of salt. Stephen Wearing, author of Volunteer Tourism: Experiences that Make a Difference argues that while it is not a panacea, of all the various ways to travel volunteer tourism is still the most responsible. He highlights the success of programs such as the locally controlled ecotourism project in the Santa Elena community of Costa Rica, where forest conservation has been coupled with youth education. Voluntourists contribute to forest conservation, and their fees are channeled back into environmental education in a transparent manner. He has a point: while it is important to critically analyse the contradictions of voluntourism, it is important not to toss the backpacker out with the bathwater.

Research and communication is the answer

The crucial point is to ask yourself first of all why you want to do this in the first place. Do you really want to do something for other people in places which are dangerous, confronting or uncomfortable? Or, is it more about offloading some middle class guilt? How can you can really help? Figure out what you feel you can contribute, for how long, where and in what capacity. Then you can look up suitable organisations.

Think about the costs and where the money could go. Like Sarah suggested, could you use your $1,500 in a way that could benefit the community more? Make sure that you are choosing programs run by responsible organisations that are operating in close collaboration with the communities they are supposed to represent.

As a general rule, programs run by grassroots non-profit organisations are more locally consultative, as opposed to religious or for-profit ones. Alternatively, applying for more skilled positions through organizations such as Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development and Australian Volunteers International will ensure that you are involved in long term programs which have been structured according to community needs.

When assessing the suitability of voluntourism organisations, don’t be afraid to contact the program managers directly and ask questions such as:

  • How long has the organisation been operating?
  • How do they measure results? 
  • How do they divide up income from voluntourist fees?
  • Does the organisation make financial contributions to the community?
  • Do they understand the local language?
  • How involved is the local community in the organisation’s projects?
  • How do they see themselves fitting into the future of the community?
  • Is the project need determined through collaboration with the local community?
  • Does the organization have a regular presence in the community?

If the answers you receive to these questions are foggy, chances are the organisation may not be operating with perfect efficiency and transparency.

This seems like a lot of work: can anyone help?

A number of useful web resources exist to help you in your research, such as:
Just remember…

The key is to be conscious and aware. As long as you do your research before signing up and handing over your cash, you have a good chance of avoiding work that isn’t ‘good for everyone’. To take your humanitarian aspirations a step further, why not consider embarking on some more long term programs, or getting more involved in volunteer work at home?

As one volunteer tourist suggested, ‘Volunteering should be something we do as a regular part of our lives, not just… when we have extra money to spend on travel. Your actions are your voice in the world, saying loudly and clearly what you think is important, what you believe to be right, what you support.’

And don’t forget to have fun!

How do I know this?

For personal accounts of volunteer tourism see;

See here for a list of media articles generally favourable to voluntourism incl. CNN, National Geographic Traveller.

Anna Mdee, Ph.D. Wisdom & Insight: Additional Perspective on Development and Volunteer Tourism

Australian Volunteers International Homepage

Christina Heyniger Complete Guide to Volunteer Tourism

Daniel A. Guttentag The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism (International Journal of Tourism Research; 11, 537–551 (2009)

J.B MacKinnon The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism

K. Tomazos and R. Butler Volunteer Tourism: Tourism, Serious Leisure, Altruism or Self Enhancement?

McGhee, Nancy Volunteer Tourism: Sustainable Innovation in Tourism, or Just ‘Pettin’ the Critters’

Stephen Wearing Volunteer Tourism: Experiences that Make a Difference (CABI Publishing, 2001)

Stebbins, R.A., Graham, M Volunteering as Leisure, Leisure as Volunteering: An International Assessment (CABI Publishing, 2004)

Tyler Green et al Perceptions of short-term medical volunteer work: a qualitative study in Guatemala

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Meli 28-Apr-2011

This is a great break down of the issue. I researched this a while ago and believe that commercial, short-term volunteer tourism projects cause more harm than good. People are better off becoming involved in longer term projects based around skill, if they can.

I'm not sure if you've read this, but it's a report by the Human Science Research Council called "AIDS Orphan Tourism" - it looks at the impact on children in orphanages.