Unpacking Voluntourism: Five Myths
Criticizing voluntourism seems almost as popular as voluntourism itself. Five years after stories surfaced about Cambodian orphanages exploiting children (many of whom weren’t orphans) to attract altruistic tourists, reporters and bloggers continue their assault.
The media criticism, though well-intentioned, takes a frustratingly one-dimensional view, portraying volunteers as young, selfie-obsessed do-gooders with white-savior complexes. If you believe what you read, voluntourism is a neocolonialist activity only slightly less horrifying than Ebola or Donald Trump.
Yet most critics have never volunteered abroad. Others were turned off by a single volunteer experience, which is like eating a convenience store taquito and declaring all food to be bad. And though media coverage remains focused on local impact, reporting rarely includes local perspectives, which seems—dare I say—neocolonialistic.
As a six-time volunteer, I’ve asked many of the questions raised by critics—Does voluntourism create dependency? What qualifies unskilled first-world travelers to work in developing countries?—and I want to weigh in on the debate.
Here’s a look at five common stereotypes about voluntourism, and why it’s time for a refresh:
1. Only volunteers benefit.
Volunteer labor isn’t perfect. Construction projects can take longer than necessary, skeptics note, because local workers need to manage and train volunteers—and fix their mistakes.
Voluntourism focuses more on feeling good than doing good, critics say. Jane Karigo, a Kenyan woman who founded a children’s home where I worked near Mombasa, recalls a volunteer who gave a child an iPod, igniting jealous infighting among the residents. Another took the kids to a go-kart track, which Jane viewed as a frivolous waste of resources. “They will not care about go-karts when they are hungry,” she noted.
Yet the scores of volunteers I’ve met in my travels seemed genuine about helping others.
Of course, selflessness always involves personal gain. It gives us pleasure. But that doesn’t mean volunteering can’t produce results.
When I worked on a climate change program in Ecuador, the scientists were able to run more research projects with help from volunteer labor. In China, volunteers worked with college students who were learning English. It was a valuable service: the students knew the language, but needed practice speaking it. In the process, they learned about America while the volunteers learned about China.
Spontaneous exchanges like these are but one of the many intangible benefits of volunteering. These benefits, argues Daniela Papi, founder of Learning Service, an advocacy group working to help people rethink volunteer travel, often get overlooked—“the friendships, the cross-cultural learning, and the life changes it inspires in volunteers who hopefully shift how they live, travel, and give in the future.”
2. Voluntourism hurts local economies.
Generosity can have unexpected repercussions. After volunteering in Cambodia, Papi discovered that giving shoes and water filters to residents—actions she’d been encouraged to take on other volunteer trips—can divert business from local markets. Critics also charge that volunteer labor steals jobs, though Papi, who now approaches voluntourism with skepticism, disagrees: “The negative impact is the money and energy going into Band-Aid solutions rather than higher prioritized local needs.”
Yet even experts who believe free labor can hurt local employment see economic benefits.
“There is no doubt that some volunteer programs shift jobs from locals to potentially less skilled labor,” says Shannon O’Donnell, author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. But she cautions against assuming this is the case in every scenario. “Many volunteer programs hire locals in other capacities: families to host and feed volunteers, shops that sell snacks and souvenirs.”
In Costa Rica, my wife and I taught English at a rural elementary school. The principal used volunteers because he couldn’t afford an English teacher. It wasn’t a choice between volunteers and paid teachers; it was a choice between volunteers and not offering English class.
As a volunteer in post-Katrina New Orleans, I counted spending money in the tourist-starved city among my most valuable contributions. The same was true in the West Bank, where businesses in checkpoint-choked towns like Bethlehem were struggling after the Second Intifada.
“The media tends to annihilate programs from a single economic aspect,” says O’Donnell. “But international volunteering is part of a complex ecosystem that can, when done well, help a community grow in a direction they support.”
3. Every project involves children in developing countries.
“I find it absurd when all volunteering is painted with the same brush,” says Kirsty Henderson, author of The Underground Guide to International Volunteering. “Would people make negative comments if I volunteered with vulnerable kids in my hometown? I’m more culturally prepared to work there than in Thailand.”
While kids are the focus of many projects, voluntourism opportunities are manifold.
Earthwatch, an environmental science organization, offers projects as varied as archaeological excavations near Hadrian’s Wall and scientific research at the Great Barrier Reef.
Programs are available throughout the United States, from trail maintenance with the American Hiking Society to animal welfare work with the Humane Society. The community-run Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race in Bayfield, Wisconsin, has been called a model voluntourism program by Voluntourism.org. Volunteer jobs include handling dogs, helping mushers, and assisting at checkpoints.
“You can volunteer at a school in Kenya, but you can also do accounting for an environmental agency in the United Kingdom,” Henderson argues. “Volunteering is simply the act of giving your time for free.”
4. All volunteers are college students.
When I volunteered in China with Global Volunteers, 11 Americans participated and only one was under the age of 40. In the Ecuadorian Andes, our crew included a sexagenarian Canadian, a septuagenarian Australian—and zero college students. In Costa Rica I met an 80-year-old volunteer with Cross-Cultural Solutions who later worked in Thailand.
“[Baby] Boomers volunteering overseas is a huge trend,” says O’Donnell. “They have a deep interest in finding projects that resonate within their own lives and supporting those projects for years. They understand that change occurs gradually.”
As for supposedly selfie-obsessed young volunteers, many Millennials use volunteering as a springboard to humanitarian careers. Tenteleni, a U.K.-based volunteer group, recently published a piece on 14 program alumni whose jobs now range from teaching to social work. Selfies are part of voluntourism, admits O’Donnell, “but this happens more with tour programs offering a feel-good pop-in visit to an orphanage—which is really pseudo volunteering.”
5. Voluntourism creates dependency.
Dependency is a problem, and it’s not just about giving local people money or things, says Papi. “It’s about selling an image of poverty to Westerners and saying that—just by being them, without any responsibility to learn, shift, or qualify—they can ‘help.’”
The negative stories, however, assume that all volunteer programs create dependency. The misconception may be a product of semantics. “Volunteer” implies offering services to people in need while “tourist” denotes camera-clad gawkers. The result? “Voluntourist” becomes a dirty word.
In a research paper for Voluntourist.org, Carlos Palacios, Ph.D., of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, argues that voluntourism is the only type of travel that’s vilified as colonialistic. Programs that describe themselves as service learning, cultural exchange, or educational tourism “have not got into this kind of trouble,” he notes.
In the course of my experience, I came to see myself more as an intern than a volunteer: someone who did small but necessary work—dish washing, data entry, trash collecting—while receiving an education about a place and its challenges.
I was taught by women like Jane Kargio in Kenya and Zhang Tao, who formed a special needs school in China despite few resources and long-held prejudices toward autistic and developmentally disabled children. These women are action heroes—the most impressive, committed people I’ve ever met.
“We call it volunteering or service learning, implying that we are helping, and as a byproduct we are learning, but that is backwards,” Papi says. “Learning service—learning how to serve the rest of our lives by how we live—is the biggest impact. We sell a lie when we call it volunteering and make it seem like success comes from changing someone else.”
Ken Budd is the author of the award-winning memoir The Voluntourist—A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem. His earnings from the book are going back to the organizations and projects where he volunteered (which is probably neocolonialistic). Follow Ken on Twitter @Ken_Budd.