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The Paradox of Voluntourism and How to Escape it

I have always loved the idea of travelling the world. I love everything from the airplane turbulence and the thrill of language barriers to the amazing history and music that comes with travelling. And then, when I was in high-school, I discovered my love for volunteerism and activism. Realizing that my rather small actions had the capability to catalyze a much bigger impact in my community filled me with so much passion and love for this type of work. When I discovered that I can combine both tourism and volunteering, I could not stop fantasizing about how cool and impactful trips abroad could be. I imagined myself in places like Mongolia and Bolivia, being everywhere and doing everything, bringing about positive change.

Last semester, I decided to finally take the jump and apply for a volunteer position abroad. This time, since I was now fully committed to this idea in my head, I looked at dozens of volunteer organizations in several different countries and researched their values and commitments to their community. However, many of them left a bad taste in my mouth—some seemed to be covertly “for profit”, others seemed to be more tourism based, and the rest just gave me a feeling that the work I would be doing would vanish as soon as I left. And this is how I came across the concept of “voluntourism” which made me think about the good, the bad, and the ugly of foreigners volunteering around the world.

The Good

The good can be easy to see, after all, that is what some for profit companies want potential travelers to believe. Volunteers do provide free work, alleviating a lot of the costs that come from education, development, or public health programs. Having an international team helps cultivate ideas, and raise empathy for the issues in a given country back at home.

A clear example of the benefit of foreign volunteers is the opportunity to learn languages from a native speaker. Native Spanish speakers, for example, can learn from native English speakers, and vice versa. Having this type of exposure is mutually beneficial for the language learning process. Exposure to a different culture also makes one more culturally sensitive and globally aware. Going abroad opens various doors for travelers, challenging many preconceived notions that they may have about what it means to be in Country XYZ with more thorough, hands-on interaction with a foreign world.

It is a great way to spend time and money that would otherwise be spent just on vacation, especially since everyone who wants to go abroad wants to go with nothing but admirable intentions. But with almost everything in life, there are both positive and negative aspects.

The Bad

Some projects that volunteers sign up to do abroad are often menial tasks, and run the risk of taking jobs away from the local population. An example New York Times writer Jacob Kushner used in his article on the topic is a group of American volunteers who spent their week in Haiti building houses. With the thousands of dollars they spent getting to Haiti, they could have donated to local organizations to provide local Haitians with a decent wage for a construction job. Instead, they put people out of work, replacing more skilled laborers with a group of Americans who more than likely had no experience with building a house. The argument essentially is that the money you spent getting to Country XYZ for a menial project is better used when donated to credible organizations. The risk of taking jobs away from locals is definitely real, and something to be aware of when traveling for volunteer work.

On a more societal note, voluntourism can play a strong role in perpetuating stereotypes of “developed” vs “undeveloped nations.” While this type of traveling has the power to tear apart these same stereotypes if you use it in a way to learn and appreciate a country’s differences compared to yours, the danger still exists. Another article says that voluntourism perpetuates the idea that impoverished nations cannot “get better” without an intervention from the West which simply isn’t true.

Another issue that both articles mention is that volunteers without specific skills (i.e. pro-bono workers) have no real power to create lasting change. “The design of these programmes leads to superficial engagement for volunteers. This makes it hard for them to think about – or do anything about – the structural issues that create humanitarian crises in the first place.”  Unless the volunteers are willing to become well versed in the issues that face the Country XYZ, the effects of their work will barely influence the large issues the country faces.Students who engage in these programmes actually contribute towards the mystification of larger systems that produce inequality, poverty, particular patterns of disease distribution, and various forms of violence.”

On a personal note, I don’t agree with this argument, especially since it overlooks the strengths and capabilities every individual brings to a team. Going abroad to volunteer is not “a waste of time” solely because you’re not a professional, if anything it helps to open opportunities for your future and strengthens your lifelong commitment to activism and volunteering.

The risk of taking jobs and perpetuating stereotypes is something to be aware of if you’re considering volunteering abroad, but educating yourself about the organization and the history of the country alleviates the possibility. Doing your part to prevent cultural insensitivity can greatly improve the voluntourism experience not only for foreign volunteers, but also the local community.

The Ugly

The exploitive side of voluntourism is definitely ugly, and worse than the cons stated above.

A big side effect of voluntourism is the concept of “orphan tourism” where organizations posing as charities use orphanages almost as a money making business. Children, who often aren’t even parentless, are kept in awful conditions, starved, and have large gaps in education. Organizers are purposefully subjecting kids to bad conditions so a steady flow of volunteers come and spend money, profiting them in return. Even if the orphanage is legitimate, having a constant flow of volunteers coming and going has been linked to emotional attachment issues later in life, affecting the children’s lives forever.

Another side effect, is this idea of “poverty porn.” I have seen people I went to high school with post pictures on social media about how “poor” the area they’re helping is, and what a good person they are for going there. Sure, there is a chance that the post was made with good intentions, but it glamorized the real struggles of a community to get pity likes.

Graphic examples of poverty are only used to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. They are not showing an accurate picture of the country, leading to harmful generalizations. The lasting detrimental effects of using poverty porn to describe a community has been studied for decades by many researchers, and has even been represented in an SNL skit, raising awareness for the issue.

Again, researching an organization you’re thinking of working with is extremely important–the risk of supporting a corrupt business model is something that is preventable. Being mindful of how you share about your experience can impact the view of the entire country/region.  

Future Hope and Advice

My biggest takeaway from all of this, and I can’t stress this enough, is to research the organization you are thinking of traveling with. Look at the history of the company, look at what the locals think about it, look at the organization beyond what they are trying to show you. You have the right to ask questions about where the travel fees are going, how the organization works with the community, and how your work matters. Be that person who asks a ridiculous amount of questions about an organization’s motives and pesters them relentlessly if you’re not sure. If they give excuses or unclear answers, I would strongly consider looking somewhere else.

With all of the things to look out for, I was still able to have my dream of travelling and volunteering come true. After doing hours of obsessive research, even during class and at 2 a.m. in the morning, I felt comfortable applying to volunteer at SKIP–Supporting Kids in Peru.

By looking at their website and other sources, a lot of things differentiated them from other programs. For me, it was their annual reports that give an extremely clear breakdown of not only their distribution of finances, but the impact they had on their community which made me feel confident in my decision to apply and join the team.

In fact, my curiosity of what SKIP thought of the concept of voluntourism lead me to actually email them the New York Times article, and ask if they had anything to say for my article about the topic, and what makes SKIP different. Heather Couch, Manager of Volunteer Coordination, wrote out a thoughtful, honest reply about how the organization combats the paradox of voluntourism:

“Here at SKIP we depend on volunteers to support our programs but have also built in several rules and structures that help us to avoid voluntourism. First, we also always try to listen to the community that we serve. The community helped us start our programs and helped us build the building we now work in. We have a parents’ council that meets with our coordination team to discuss changes and suggestions. We also put a lot of emphasis on maintaining a local staff in our programs and also recruiting local volunteers. This allows for consistency in the programs and enables us to control the quality of the classes and services we are providing since volunteers mainly come in to support local staff leading the main curriculum and also teach extracurricular classes such as English, Sports, and Art. The benefit of having new volunteers from around the world often is that they bring in new energy and ideas to our program constantly. One of the things that I think many people living in poverty don’t get often is exposure to new things and that’s something that we are able to provide by exposing them to new cultures, music, sports etc. constantly.”

The connection of SKIP, or any organization, with the community is crucially important in having a volunteer model that maximizes the amount of benefit. This ensures that the organization does things the community actually benefits from, focusing more on the needs of the people than the “surface level wants” of the volunteers.

“Some of the guidelines that we have in place are that volunteers must come for a minimum of one month and we always encourage volunteers to stay longer if they can. In addition, we don’t allow volunteers to publish pictures of the children or families on social media because we can’t control what they will say about the kids or families and we also can’t control what happens to those images of the children.”

Having rules such as these in any organization fights against the harmful sensationalism of poverty, which has always been important to me. This policy helps the volunteers to see the community for what it really is—a vibrant group of people that is growing together, not a surface level charity campaign that can be used to score pity points on social media.

“We also have bi-weekly training for the volunteers that we call volunteer reflections. Sometimes those are us discussing our goals and feelings about the experience and other times they are discussions about world poverty, cultural assimilation, and cross-cultural communication. We hope that by working with our volunteers to think more deeply about their experience here, they will be more conscientious in their actions and will continue to look for ways to help appropriately.”

Lastly, this cements the fact that SKIP, and other credible organizations, inspire their volunteers to learn, reflect, and grow from the experience that volunteering gives them. I wanted to be part of something that will stay with me for life, and having an environment where that is important is crucial. However, as of January 21st, SKIP has decided to close its doors, after listening to the issues people in the community have raised and concerns over security risks in the area. As much as I was devastated by the news that an NGO I truly believe in has closed, SKIP listened to what their community had to say and responded to it in a way they believed was best. This is another example of how volunteer organizations should be dependent, and adaptable, to the community they serve.

To be clear, this is not an article long advertisement for SKIP, especially since they have decided to close.  Instead, I wanted to show how it is still possible to follow your passion and volunteer abroad with avoiding the harmful effects of voluntourism. There are organizations as conscious and transparent as SKIP all over the world, and the key thing is to find them by studying and questioning their values, history, and outcomes. Do not be afraid to ask questions about an amazing volunteer group, and do not be afraid to explore the amazing world we live in!