Voluntourism – Helpful or Harmful?

I have been following this debate on Twitter about voluntourism. Yes, I know, amazing how much people can do with their 140 characters. As I read people’s two cents I couldn’t help but wonder – Who really benefits from voluntourism? Is voluntourism helpful or harmful?

There are several things about voluntourism that are simply bothersome. For starters, voluntourism has become a booming profit-making industry, particularly in Africa. I mean who could resist the opportunity to explore the “mysterious country of Africa” and take photos of ever-smiling children who have no idea where their images will end up? But I digress. Travel and tour companies have taken advantage of voluntourism’s popularity and incorporated it into their business models. A quick Google search for “Voluntourism in Africa” yielded a good number of such companies. Their websites highlight the different ways in which they can incorporate a traveler’s leisure trip with volunteer opportunities. They claim to blend the economic benefits of tourism with the social impact of volunteering. Sounds enticing, no!? Other than the travel and tour companies, there are organizations that are solely dedicated to voluntourism in Africa. One of them even goes so far as to state that, “Your mere presence in our city will change your world, our world and the world of our partner projects.” Apparently all you really need to do is show up and a change chain reaction will begin immediately.

Secondly, many a voluntourists make it about themselves rather than the communities that they are volunteering in. They are more interested in how their lives will be changed than how they can be of assistance in the communities transformation. People want to “find themselves” amidst the poverty and disease. They want to experience the suffering firsthand so that they can become compassionate. Does one really need to slum it for a few weeks in order to gain compassion for the poor? Some of the younger voluntourists are looking for an out-of-the-box experience to add to their resume. They desire to be known as the person who spent time transforming Africa. It’s as good an icebreaker as any. For some who are still in school, it’s a way to gain cool points with the professor who specializes in Africa. Some even hope to make their way into a chapter of the said professor’s next book. Well, at least according to an article written by a voluntourist who spent a summer in Africa. While we are at it – why do people use Africa as a synonym for (insert any African country)? Yes, you were in Africa but where in Africa?

The thing about voluntourism is that it benefits tours and travel companies, voluntourism organizations and voluntourists more than the communities that are involved. Volunteering and tourism are both good and can have numerous benefits depending on how they are leveraged.

When it comes to volunteering, I think we need to make it about the vulnerable communities. If your reasons for helping are purely selfish, then maybe you should consider doing something else for example, reading an inspirational book, planting trees, hiking and recycling. These are just some of the alternative activities that can make you feel good about yourself, give you a different perspective and help you find yourself, among others.

Many people wonder how volunteering can be harmful. Well, in some cases, it can create a cycle of dependency. This is especially when organizations send in volunteer after volunteer to perform tasks and duties that can easily be done by people within the community. Volunteers are typically assigned to communities for brief periods where they engage in activities ranging from coaching soccer to invasive plant removal. These are all things that can be done by people within the community but it makes it difficult for them to actively engage and take ownership of such processes if there is always someone being sent from outside to do it.

Take the case of volunteering at orphanages as another example. Many voluntourists do it and it’s one of the most popular activities among them. According to research, by Linda M. Richter and Mary Norman presented in their paper “AIDS Orphan Tourism,” it can be harmful to the children. Children build attachments. While living in orphanages, they experience a series of abandonment due to the high staff turnover rates and good-intentioned voluntourists who come in for a few days, weeks and months and then leave only to be replaced by another group.

Before embarking on voluntourism, it is important to ask some key questions. Am I doing this purely for personal gain? If your honest answer is yes, then you are better off engaging only in the tourism aspect. It will give you a chance to travel, experience different cultures, meet diverse individuals, take in the sights and soak up the weather. Additionally, it keeps people in the industry employed and they are better able to provide for their dependents. You could also donate to a local organization that is effective in fulfilling its mission.

Will my skill contribution provide long term benefits? If the answer is no, then refer to the above paragraph. If yes, then it is important to work in partnership with the local communities. Please do not go into a community with a superiority complex. Collaborating with local communities ensures that one is able to understand their needs. As they say, it is the wearer of the shoe that knows where it pinches. After establishing the needs then it is easier to work in conjunction with community members to come up with an efficient and effective plan of action.

If you have very particular skills that are not available locally, then you should probably offer those rather than the ones that are already there. For example, if your expertise is in development, then you could work with a local organization that needs to keep track of donations received and better manage their funds. If you are an entrepreneur, you could work with individuals in the community to come up with business proposals that ensure they are able to secure loans so that they can participate in sustainable income generating activities. If you are a web design guru, you could help aforementioned individuals create and design webpages to market their products and services. Also, work with community members so that they learn those specialized skills and are able to carry on the work once you leave. These are just some of the ways to ensure your contribution adds value to the communities.

Another way for well-meaning individuals to help is by pushing their governments to get rid of the unfair and exploitative policies that they have with regards to developing countries.

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