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The Rights and Wrongs of Voluntourism

Volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism,” is the practice in which tourists incorporate charity work into their travels abroad. Over the past few years, this travel industry trend has become a recurrent source of controversy and has left many wondering whether it is possible to ethically volunteer abroad at all.

Despite the recent deluge of headlines on the topic of voluntourism, however, the concept of combining voluntary service with travel is not new, and has not always been so contentious. Founded in the 1950s, International Voluntary Services (IVS) was one of the first non-profit organizations to send American volunteers into developing countries in order to provide aid. IVS and the United States Peace Corps, which was founded a short time later in 1961 by President Kennedy, are often cited as the start of voluntourism as we know it today.

Photo by Abby Rowe;

Initially voluntourism trips were organized by international assistance organizations that had a long-standing relationship with the local community and the projects were undertaken by people with a direct connection to a particular cause. The assignments were treated as intense volunteer projects with a focus on providing necessary assistance. In the 1990s, however, the travel industry began to explore this travel niche and over the past two decades the practice has expanded to become its own thriving industry as short-term volunteer vacations have grown in popularity.

Unfortunately, the growth of this industry has not always had a positive outcome. There is no official governing body that dictates how to properly practice voluntourism, neither as a host organization nor as a volunteer. Therefore, the lack of accountability and regulation has left a void allowing some organizations to thrive even as they show little concern towards the betterment of the local community. In fact, there are many organizations and companies that are simply trying to do what is best for their bottom line.

The voluntourism industry has been accused of being convoluted and ethically ambiguous. Many critics of the practice note that some organizations seem to cater entirely to the needs of volunteer tourists, thereby ignoring the needs of those that they are supposed to serve. A 2010 study of voluntourism in African orphanages determined that performing short-term volunteer work in these situations is “potentially exploitative.” It was noted that very few tourists were properly trained to interact with vulnerable or traumatized children, and the fleeting encounters that voluntourists share with orphans could, in fact, harm the emotional and social development of the children once the volunteers leave.

The exploitative practices of some organizations have left an indelible mark on the practice of voluntourism as a whole, and it is understandable that many ethically concerned travelers would wish to avoid the industry completely. However, it is possible to volunteer abroad in a responsible fashion. Although finding these quality opportunities is more challenging than it should be, travelers should not be deterred.

Understand the context

Before even starting a volunteer project, it is vitally important to understand why international aid is needed and how it works. The unfortunate truth is that not all organizations work with their local community to determine if the work they are doing is actually helpful and necessary. Consequently, “many volunteer projects can actually foster dependency on international aid and compromise the dignity of the people they are trying to help.

Fortunately, there is plenty of information available online, including this list from Grassroots Volunteering.

Communicate with the organization

Before committing to a placement, volunteers can ensure that the organization is ethical by asking the right questions. Do not be afraid to ask how the placement fee will be used. Volunteers should be wary of high overhead costs. The best organizations should be investing a majority of the funds in community projects. Potential volunteers should also ask for proof of success in the local community. Asking to speak with past volunteers and the local staff is completely appropriate. Transparency is important and any organization that is doing good and necessary work will have no problem answering any and all questions lobbed their way.

Do I have the right mindset?

As a volunteer it is most important to remember that your primary goal is to support the community. Throughout the entire process volunteers should constantly be asking themselves if their actions are of real benefit to those they are serving. While on-the-ground, volunteers should be flexible, prepared to adapt to any situation, and open to handling a variety of challenges.

Do I have enough time to volunteer on this trip?

The amount of time available for volunteering as part of a trip abroad should be an important consideration for all volunteers. Short-term assignments are best for projects that require many hands and minimal training. However, any work that depends on developing personal relationships, like at an orphanage, should be done by trained professionals who commit to volunteering for at least a few months. Remember, training new volunteers is a big investment for hosts, so a short-term volunteer does not provide as much benefit. If your itinerary only allows for a short amount of volunteering, consider skipping it and instead make a conscious effort to support the local economy while you travel.

Am I qualified to do this job?

Volunteers should expect to receive only minimal on-the-job training, so a highly skilled task may not be the best fit for a newbie. Essentially, if you are not qualified to do the job at home, then you are probably not qualified to do the job abroad either. The best volunteer placements match the volunteer’s skills and experience, otherwise the work, however good intentioned, may actually have a negative impact.

The benefits for volunteer travelers are obvious; it is a chance to leave the beaten tourist path behind and an opportunity to really connect with a community and experience their culture. Most importantly though, when a project is carefully carried out according to the needs of the community, skills are transferred, homes are built, and families are uplifted. When done right, voluntourism is a cross-cultural exchange that can be incredibly beneficial to both locals and travelers.

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