Thursday, November 8, 2007

Voluntourism—Who Really Benefits?

Voluntourists go abroad to change lives, but the lives they end up changing are usually (sometimes only) their own.

Really, how can anyone spend a few weeks to a few months in a developing country with the expectation that their transient volunteering will make a lasting impact? The experience might make the volunteer feel very good about his or herself, but critics (and there are surprisingly few) question whether these volunteers are actually adding something positive to the communities they hope to serve. Many don’t stick around long enough to form relationships with the locals, most don’t come with skills that would actually prove useful to the project (no, good intentions are not skills), and some arrive with preconceived notions about what the native people ought to be doing, and feel very entitled to take over. These factors have lead some to call voluntourism “the new colonialism.” After all, we’re “giving” them our technology and know-how to help them… kinda like the English did in India all those years ago… right? The volunteer tourism market is geared towards profit over the needs of the communities, and since this form of travel is so new, there are few regulations. However, an organization called Tourism Concern is developing a code of ethical conduct for the international volunteering sector.

On the bright side—one positive result of voluntourism is that it can improve the negative perceptions of America abroad. Additionally, volunteers go to places largely passed over by the major travel magazines and tour companies, which can help the local economy.

One point however is clear across the board—traveling to other countries in a volunteer capacity really can change *your* life, if not the lives of those you expect to be helping. Even professional volunteers who object to “voluntourism” on the grounds that it attracts fare-weather do gooders out to enhance their resumes, those who have no useful skills, and those who feel entitled to impose their own ideas of what the native people need, admit that they themselves started out in much the same way. They traveled to a country with hopes of making a lasting positive impact, but the most prominent lasting impact was in their own lives. Travel tourism companies will tell you about how many people choose to return year after year, and there is a smaller portion of people whose experiences volunteering have lead them to a lifetime devoted to their host countries.

On the Dark Side-- All the above is based on the assumption that the volunteer tourism company is legit. But gap-year Brits are coming across numerous scams—“organizations” perfectly willing to take thousands of dollars for the promise of a meaningful experience helping in a foreign/developing country. One fellow, expecting to teach English in India, was driven from the airport to a nearby school where his guide approached the teacher saying the equivalent of “hey, need another English teacher?”, and the school had no idea they were coming. In Mexico, a young woman spent her gap year with little work to do in the community and spent six months inputting data into spreadsheets—for which she paid $4000.

Websites such as helps volunteers to critically examine schemes. Aspiring philanthropists need to check what training they will receive, whether local people are involved with running the project, and what proportion of their fees actually go to the communities they are helping. Also inquire about the project’s plans to deliver lasting and sustainable benefits.

Links to other Voluntourism Articles (that are probably far more wholeheartedly in favor of it):

Voluntourism Organizations. Family Voluntourism. Skilled Volunteer Vacations. Expert Voluntourism (for those of you who know what you're doing). School Credit for Traveling. Mercy Ships.

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1 comment:

Philanthropic Travel said...

"I appreciate the thoughtful points made throughout the following article. I encourage travelers to discern the differences that Philanthropic Travel and Voluntourism offer and to decide which experience appeals to them. Whether you prefer to spend a morning or afternoon connecting with locals as the guest of an Exquisite Safaris Humanitarian Partner (offering a tax deductible donation) and the balance vacationing (Philanthropic Travel); or prefer spending a morning or afternoon vacationing and the balance serving as a volunteer (Voluntourism) -valuable benefits accrue to all who collaborate." -David Chamberlain