Voluntourism: Helpful or Hurtful?

Jet to an exotic country. Get immersed in local customs. Help build a house or dig a well. Make buddies with fascinating people you’d never meet otherwise. A “voluntourism” trip seems like a great way to give back or improve the world in a small way. It can be, but you should ask a lot of questions before signing up and plunking down cash.

Over the last several years, this well-meaning market has grown quickly, with studies estimating 1.6 million volunteer tourists per year and growing. About 33 percent of volunteer travelers are between the ages of 20 and 40. Another 34 percent are slightly older, between 41 and 60. Overall, the travelers are more likely to be female. However, the impact of these trips is hard to quantify. A large majority of the tourists take them because they want to help alleviate poverty and find joy in the camaraderie.

Voluntourism: Helpful or Hurtful?

In a piece for the Guardian called “Beware the ‘Voluntourists’ Doing Good,” Ossob Mohamud writes that there are more effective ways to help the needy than take a trip. His concern is that very often the helpers come off as patronizing and condescending, with little understanding of the local culture and the people’s actual needs.

Other critics complain that high-paying volunteers take jobs away from local laborers. The engagement between volunteers and Cambodian orphansmay seem endearing — until you discover some of these children have families, and are just being hired out to entertain big-hearted tourists with sob stories. In other reported cases, an orphanage may keep the conditions of an institution squalid to ply more money from tourists primed to donate. Even if the orphans do connect with the volunteers, they’re once again faced with feelings of abandonment when the tour is over.

Not all NGOs think voluntourism is bad. Chris Johnson, director of communications for the Fuller Center of Housing, is less concerned about a volunteer’s impetus for choosing to build homes for families in the mountains of Peru or Nepal “as long as the work gets done.” In a New York Times article, he explained that the families who benefit from the new residence probably don’t care if the builders are doing it for selfish reasons.

How Do You Know If Your Program Is Effective?

So, how do you know if the program you’re paying for is actually helping people? There are several important details to consider that will help uncover the impact of the tour, outlined by the editors of the site Ethical Volunteering.

1. Bigger Isn’t Always Better

While you might think the more you pay for a tour, the more impact it will have, a more expensive tour may have less impact because it has fewer connections to local organizations.

2. Watch out for Grand Promises

As much as you want to think you’re “changing the world,” the reality is you’re giving a small boost to an organization that needs a hand. Be mindful of marketing that promises more.

3. Don’t be swayed by pictures of children

It’s great to help children, but if you’re looking at a brochure that tugs at your heartstrings rather than demonstrates what impact you’re making, be wary.

4. Check if the organization screens volunteers

Is this organization of change hoping to capitalize on your skills, or does it just need your money? Take heed if it doesn’t care about what capabilities you have.

According to a study by the Adventure Travel Trade Organization, the most popular volunteer programs offer the opportunity to work with children, support education, protect the environment, create local jobs, and assist clean water projects.

While the popular voluntourism destinations are in Asia, Africa and Latin America, it’s also possible to assist NGOs in cities such as New Orleans andOrlando. Some hotels in Denver, like the Four Seasons Hotel Denver, have been known to offer a discount to guests willing to spend half a day working with charity.

Find a project that makes for a great experience while also positively impacting the world.

This post was posted by The hipmunk on Hipmunk’s Tailwind blog on 28 August, 2015.

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3 Comments

  • I have similar concerns about voluntourism. I volunteered at a school in Kenya and loved their honest and open “use” of volunteers. They don’t need volunteers as teachers or gardeners or cooks. That’s what the school employs locals for. Also, the school believes Kenyan kids should see Kenyan teachers and role models not foreign “saviours”. So why volunteers? Because when Westerners feel connected with a project they donate much needed funds to enable the continued employment of Kenyan locals and education of Kenyan children. And that is good for the community. Volunteers also are much needed caring human contact for women stuck in the slums. Many are HIV+ and ostracised. When a volunteer visits a woman who has little hope, she feels that someone cares and is not afraid of her. Maybe the volunteer brings a small parcel of flour, water, oil and soap. A parcel the woman can otherwise not afford unless she prostitutes herself. And then, slowly the woman might gain confidence to attend free literacy classes or to accept responsibility to use a micro loan from the school to set up a small vegetable store so she can earn some money and not have to rely on the infrequent visits from volunteers. But the real role of the volunteer is not what they do in Kenya but what they do when they go home – when they share their stories and tell people about the reality of life in other places. And that brings money into all the charities in Kenya, Africa and the developing world in general.

    So the volunteer is not a “saviour” but an ambassador for Kenya and to help fund local solutions that otherwise would fail for lack of funds.

    The other side scares me … The side where churches build schools on the condition local people attend worship and prayer. Or the other problems you mention. These days I just donate instead of volunteering. But I might go back to the school in Kenya to visit people I met and became friendly with. Not as a volunteer but as a visitor who will continue to spread the word to find donors for that and other charities

  • This article highlights some very important points. One point you don’t make (although screening should help with that) is that many of the “tasks” we were scheduled for were more about the person who organized the trip (a native of that village with family still there) being seen as important in her village. We also faced a political situation over taking work away from local people.

  • Dear Hipmunk: Completely agree with points 1-3: 1. BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER 2. WATCH OUT FOR GRAND PROMISE. 3. DON’T BE SWAYED BY PICTURES OF CHILDREN

    On point #4: CHECK IF THE ORGANIZATION SCREENS VOLUNTEERS, I agree that many scam voluntourism organizations don’t care about the skills of the volunteer and may place them in situations where skills are needed. Many of these bad voluntourism organizations really only care about the money. However, one of the lessons of good voluntourism is that most of the best initiatives combine both effective work AND additional resources from the volunteers for the cause. These additional resources for the cause and local communities can come from a) direct contributions to the cause, b) resources spent by volunteers locally that help boost the local economy, and 3) additional funding to a great cause because of the increased awareness generated by volunteers.

    I also think that there is huge potential to create a new kind of volunteer vacation that INTENTIONALLY focuses on simple engagement that doesn’t require skill. BeachCorps is my model for a new kind of volunteer vacation that combines the best of a great beach vacation in a quality hotel with an excursion of fun, simple, and meaningful volunteer work supporting great causes just minutes from your hotel. The model I’ve developed over time since I​ ​was the Press Officer in the US Embassy in Santo Domingo from 2007-2010 makes volunteer vacations more popular and fun and also addresses some of the problems in existing volunteer vacations that harm sustainability. ​ See http://www.beachcorps.com for more information.

    The BeachCorps model is very different from other traditional voluntourism, including the new Carnival Cruise “fathom” line, because BeachCorps directly supports worthy US 501c3 nonprofits and separates costs of 1) support to great causes 2) the excursion and 3) the vacation to promote better transparency, accountability and sustainability. We also will provide a lot more funding per volunteer and help nonprofits expand their repertoire of activities to include things like baseball. I have been engaging hard core sustainable development experts, all of whom have encouraged me to continue developing the BeachCorps model. When I finally get BeachCorps off the ground, I fully expect to hear both criticism and praise from serious development experts and will be working to improve the sustainability of the BeachCorps model.

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