Nowadays the concept of ‘voluntourism’, the combination of tourism and charity work, has rapidly flourished beyond the traditional gap-year activity to become a multimillion-dollar industry, for everyone from school leavers to retirees. Spending a week volunteering in an orphanage or building a house might seem like a selfless way to spend your holiday, but research is beginning to show downsides to this industry, forcing us to ask the question: does voluntourism do more harm than good?
How helping can harm
Whilst it would be hard to argue that wanting to help those less fortunate isn’t admirable, the rapid and unregulated growth of this sector, including the rise in number of for-profit companies offering these trips, raises suspicions that both the people at the receiving end of this help, as well as those donating their time and money, are potentially being exploited. But what could be wrong with people helping others for free?
For starters, while the volunteer often only gives up a couple of weeks of their time, this never-ending cycle of tourists can often prevent much-needed jobs from going to locals. Developing communities need economic stimulus and an increase in employment opportunities, not handouts in the form of well-meaning, but often misguided, foreigners. In some extremes, this can lead to laziness and exploitation: if a community knows that it’s going to get money from these organizations, as well as a steady stream of visitors carrying out work for them, then the incentive to stand on its own two feet can be diminished.
With regard to those who complete placements in schools and orphanages, the breaking of bonds often formed between children and these visitors once these volunteers leave can have a lasting impact on these children and can often hinder their emotional development. A damaging cycle of adults coming and going in short periods of time can become normality for some, leading to potential difficulties in forming long-term bonds with others as they grow up. As a worse-case scenario, rumours have come to light that, in certain areas, children are being abandoned, and in some cases abducted, to be housed in orphanages to fuel the demand for these types of trips.
Whilst the thought of helping communities by building homes, communal buildings or drainage tunnels might sound like a good and fairly straightforward way to give back, the truth is not quite as clear cut. Despite the fact that these buildings can often be basic in nature, their construction still requires a rudimentary level of skill which, generally, is not learned overnight. Tales of volunteers’ efforts being demolished and reconstructed by locals because of the poor build quality seem to be quite common. This begs the question of whether there is any need for volunteers in the first place given that it would be more economic and time efficient to use trained locals to complete the work, especially given that they would be there to help volunteers or redo their failed attempts anyway.
Another issue is that of where all the money goes. On top of air fares, visas, etc., volunteers often pay large sums of money to take part in these trips, and while accommodation and food are usually included, these can be basic and fairly unsubstantial when you consider the fee paid. It is hard to tell how much, if any, of the participation fee ends up benefiting the local community itself. For genuine charities the cost of these basic outlays (including the upkeep of accommodation) together with the marketing materials to attract volunteers can often substantially eat into their budget thus leaving them with little funds and creating a never-ending vicious circle in which new volunteers are necessary in order to simply survive.
All too often these well-intentioned volunteers arrive with the wrong skill set to properly help these communities and have little or no understanding of the local culture and way of life. More often than not, despite the fact that they have probably been more of a hindrance than a help, they return from their trip with a new-found sense of fulfilment. Could it be, therefore, that these trips are more to satisfy the ‘feel good’ needs of these volunteers rather than help the communities they are supposed to serve?
Are all forms of voluntourism harmful?
In short, no. There are several out there which offer a more sustainable balance between the ‘feel good’ factor and actually helping the community; the key is to do your research properly to find the right one.
For those who are interested in volunteering in a more effective way, offering your time and help closer to home is another option. Local charities often provide better training and support, together with the opportunity to forge longer, more meaningful relationships with those who are in need of assistance.
For those who would still like to help those abroad (there are good reasons for doing so!), think about whether you have the skills to help. If you do, get into contact with the relevant people and offer your skills. Working with them is key. If you don’t have the necessary skills, you can look at alternative ways to help. Donating, fundraising or even providing sponsorship will be likely to do more good than well-meaning yet detrimental voluntourism.