"Voluntourism" is the merging of volunteering and tourism - the growing trend of people travelling to do some good in other communities. While not inherently bad, the term has developed negative connotations due to recent criticism in the media.
Although this criticism is sometimes accurate, voluntourism is not a black and white issue. It can therefore still make a positive difference when carried out correctly.
You shouldn’t let criticism stop you from volunteering. You simply need to be aware of the possible issues, and do more research into organisations and their projects before agreeing to help.
Here is a brief guide on the negatives and positives of voluntourism, how you can avoid the pitfalls, and how we at Globalteer ensure our volunteer placements work in the best interest of the communities and projects we support.
The Downside of Voluntourism
The problems with voluntourism generally arise because people are not informed enough on local situations. It is also because the organisation or volunteers do not approach the work with the right mindset. Being informed makes the issues fairly easy to avoid.
1- Orphanage volunteering
Many people want to volunteer with children. As one of the most vulnerable groups in society, helping them can make the most difference in a community. For instance, improving the education of a generation will benefit the community in the long-term. However, volunteering with children can have a negative impact, with orphanage volunteering being the most obvious example of this. Studies have repeatedly shown that orphanages do more harm than good in child development. They have also proven that children need to grow up in families, be that their biological one or an adoptive one. It’s for this reason that most countries in the West no longer have orphanages in their own countries. However, people still frequently volunteer at orphanages in the developing world.
These institutions often expose the children to terrible conditions, abuse and sometimes even human trafficking. Furthermore, according to British charity Lumos, 80% of children in orphanages actually have a living parent. Parents still send their children to orphanages because they believe they will have better opportunities or will be better looked after. These orphanages often survive due to foreign donations and foreign volunteers who come to do some good. But they in fact just perpetuate the harmful institutionalisation of children. They also take money away from potential aid. This aid would enable families to look after their own children and thus keep the family together. You can learn more in the article we have written about the dangers of orphanage volunteering.
2- Unskilled volunteers for construction missions
Another common problem is that volunteers often don’t have the skills or experience necessary to help. For example, groups of students are often tasked with building wells or schools but have no knowledge of construction. As a result, they do poor job while simultaneously taking away paid work from qualified locals. There is a place for volunteers carrying out physical tasks, but always in support of trained, paid local staff.
3- Misuse of donations
Frequently, the money that volunteers bring in is used to improve the experience for future volunteers, not for the actual charity work. Thus the organisation starts to run more like a tourist organisation than a charity. Similarly, volunteers are often more concerned about their own experience and pay less attention to the actual impact they are having on the community. They do not stop to think about whether they will actually contribute anything before setting off on their trip.
4- Focus on short-term solutions
Often volunteering distracts from the structural issues behind poverty and inequality and stops them from being addressed. Thus, organisations and governments alike use volunteering as an excuse not to invest in long-term solutions to deeper issues. Instead, they rely on short-term, ‘band-aid’ solutions. These are not going to improve the situation in the long run, ultimately leaving levels of poverty and inequality unchanged.
5- Encourages dependency
Voluntourism has frequently been referred to as a form of neo-colonialism, which is true in certain cases. For example, it can often perpetuate the notion that developing countries require the help of ‘superior’ westerners to improve their situation. In reality, what they need is better trained locals and improved infrastructure. They could therefore help themselves and end their dependency on foreign aid and volunteers. Thus, voluntourism can be beneficial if you are going to contribute to the training or long-term development of an individual or community.
The Positive Side of Voluntourism
Voluntourism still has its benefits and can make a real, positive impact on communities and projects when done right. Volunteering can stimulate local economies, as more people spend money in local shops, markets and restaurants.
1- Training of local communities
If you have a particular skill that you can share with locals, this can make a real difference for the future of a community. For instance, if you are a physiotherapist, you can teach some workshops to local doctors. This will provide a more long-term contribution to the area. Similarly, if you are a doctor, you could help provide medical care to underprivileged communities that cannot afford to pay or don't have access to the healthcare they need.
2- Free workforce
Often, volunteers are not taking jobs from locals. They are in fact providing a service that would otherwise not be done, as it would require paying someone. This is often the case when volunteers come to teach English. It allows children to learn English without the need for a paid, qualified English teacher that the school could not afford. The best way that voluntourism supports this model is when the volunteer can also provide a financial support as well their time, so the school can recruit a permanent local English teacher. Globalteer's overseas volunteer program makes sure the local projects get financial support to ensure the schools have permanent staff that volunteers can work with rather than replace.
3- Help needed on a variety of different projects
Not all volunteer opportunities involve working with children, which is often where issues with voluntourism arise. Other projects involve conservation, research or working with animals. These are in equal need of the support of volunteers to be effective. Although this type of volunteering is not completely problem-free (such as the issues with Elephant Trekking in Asia), it shows there are easy ways to volunteer whilst ensuring you will not be contributing to the exploitation of children.
4- Cultural exchange
Volunteering abroad also provides an excellent opportunity for cultural exchange. Both volunteers and those in the local community can learn about another way of life. Being involved with locals can provide a much more enriching experience abroad. Indeed, you get a more intimate view of how people actually live in other communities. This must be done with an open mind to avoid looking down on other cultures as ‘inferior’ to western ones.
5- It all depends on the approach
In reality, the only difference between volunteering abroad and voluntourism is how we view what we are doing. Ultimately, if you are aware of the situation in the community, are fully dedicated to helping in any way you can, and carefully select where you volunteer, you are going to be able to make an impact. Even if it’s only a small one, it always makes a difference!
How you can avoid the negatives of voluntourism
Questions to ask yourself before volunteering:
Is this organisation actually helping?
Is the project going to make a difference in the long-run? Or is it just a quick solution run to attract Western travellers? Or a commercial company that's just trying to make money for their shareholders? You should choose an organisation that operates for the benefit of those they’re helping. Their focus should not be on volunteers. It should be working with the objective that one day their work will no longer be necessary. There are many types of volunteer organisations, from large commercial companies, international non-profits to local NGOs. It is really important that you do your research to work out who is best for you as well as the program you will be supporting.
Am I qualified?
Are you going to be able to do what you are signing up for? Are you going to be able to do it well? If not, it’s best to look at another project. Of course, not everything requires specific skills. Some projects will even give you training upon arrival and lots of support once overseas.
Am I going to be helping?
Sometimes it would be better for the organisation and those they help to simply receive donations rather than volunteers who they then have to look after and who won’t really have any work to do. This goes back to finding the right organisation to volunteer abroad with.
Am I better suited for another project?
Maybe you really, really want to work at a wildlife sanctuary in Peru, but if you are a qualified doctor your talents would be better suited to training medical staff in a rural community or performing medical checks on school children. You need to think about where you will make the biggest difference.
Do I understand why the project is necessary?
Have you looked into the current and historic political and economic reasons for the current situation? Do you understand the measures that are necessary to improve the situation in the long-term? Is the organisation aware of them too?
Am I volunteering for the right reason?
Imagine you weren’t allowed to tell anyone what you were doing or to post any photos on social media – would you still volunteer? If the answer is no, then maybe you do not have the right attitude to be an effective volunteer.
Would I be allowed to do this in my home country?
If you wouldn’t be allowed, for whatever reason, you shouldn’t do it anywhere else either, even if the overseas organisation would let you.
How we avoid the pitfalls of voluntourism at Globalteer
1- Working with the locals to answer their needs
At Globalteer, we work very closely with the projects we support. We ensure that we are doing what is best for them, and not just the most fun for volunteers. All of our partner projects are staffed by paid locals. Volunteers simply provide extra support and complete jobs the permanent staff don’t have time for. We work to help these projects become self-sufficient, so that one day, they will no longer need the support of charities and volunteers to carry out their vital work.
As Colin, one of the volunteers at the Cambodia community project, Helping Hands said: "Globalteer as the organisation itself makes a massive impact, they very much find a need in the local area and try and meet it".
2- Seeking long-term solutions
We promote and support the sustainable development of the communities we help. For instance, Picaflor House, our after school project in Cusco, provides extra education for children. These kids would otherwise spend their afternoons at work with their parents. This provides them with better opportunities for work when they are older, helping them escape the trap of poverty.
3- We are not a business
As a UK registered charity, we are held to high standards of social and financial ethics. This means 100% of the money we receive goes back into the charity and the projects we support. We also run background checks on all our applicants to projects with children. This is to ensure the children are in the safest possible environment.
4- Exchange of knowledge
We make sure that all volunteer placements are genuinely contributing to the projects and that the volunteers’ skills are being put to the best use possible. We also encourage volunteers to teach any relevant skills to local staff so they may continue the volunteers’ work once they leave.
What our Volunteers Say
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