We all want to travel with a purpose, and some of the most rewarding travels are ones where we give back. Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, is an emerging trend of travel linked to “doing good”. However, voluntourism can have its setbacks, and it is crucial to be mindful of our actions and their impact on communities around the world. Few Examples of voluntourism include:
- International trips with your local church
- Visiting an orphanage to play with kids
- Providing medical services in developing countries
In a perfect world, voluntourism would be the best way to spend a vacation. However, like all paying industries, voluntourism can have a dark side. A study from 2015 showed that the voluntourism industry is worth about $173 billion annually, but how much actually funnels back into the communities?
Not all voluntourism organizations are created equal. Many organizations reinforce the idea that other countries need to be “saved” by those of Western culture, otherwise known as “white savior” voluntourism. Think about on social media when you see someone that has volunteered in a country and is smiling in a picture surrounded by malnourished children. How is this post contributing to the aid of these children? The fact of the matter is, it’s not. It is reinforcing the idea that these children are not only helpless but inferior, and allows the person volunteering to receive a pat on the back from their followers. While in most cases this is not the intention of the person posting, it has the underlying message.
One of the greatest issues of voluntourism is that it can create a dependency of these countries on the organizations. Giving children a pair of shoes today will not ensure that the child will have a pair of shoes in a month. Handing out medicine today will not fix the healthcare system in the country. This culture of dependency creates crippling results for communities affected by volunteers attempting to help.
Another issue with voluntourism is that many projects prove to be unsustainable after the volunteers leave. Research found that in Ghana, people were less likely to purchase health insurance because they believed that every few months an organization would come down for a week or so to provide it. This causes several illness-related deaths each year that could have been avoided. Similarly, organizations may go down to a country to build a church, and unskilled volunteers will attempt to build the structure. In many cases, after the volunteers (and money) left, the structure would be unused and unkempt in a matter of months.
This article is not meant to demonize volunteering while travelling. Rather, it is to give you the resources and questions to ask when choosing an organization to volunteer with. People educate themselves on a non-profit before they donate money to it, and this same care and research should be taken when planning a trip with an organization.