Voluntourism: helpful or harmful?

 (NOTE: This is not an attack on those that take part in voluntourism. It is merely a different (and important) perspective of what can, and often does, go wrong.)


                Voluntourism is the intersection of international volunteering and tourism, whereby individuals generally from the developed world travel abroad to impoverished communities with the intent of engaging in ‘charitable work’. It is difficult to determine the exact size of the voluntourism market, however it is estimated to be worth £1.3 billion and is considered to be the fastest growing sector of tourism.  Although almost infamously associated with the ever expanding ‘Gap Year’ market, volunteering projects abroad are often promoted to a wide spectrum of people across the developed world with the underlying aim of such expeditions being to ‘do good’. Nonetheless, the majority of volunteers are teenagers and young adults, with overseas volunteer trips often being marketed as excellent ‘CV boosters’ (shout out to good old capitalism). Many young people see it as an opportunity to broaden their perspectives, see poverty first-hand, and essentially help out. However, despite the good intentions of many volunteers, there are a plethora of important ethical considerations, making the entire industry subject to debate.

To begin with, the majority of people partaking in voluntourism are unskilled volunteers. They are not trained to dig wells, build houses and libraries, or anything else for that matter. Their presence therefore becomes problematic when they take potential employment opportunities away from local people. People that live in absolute poverty are not the passive, helpless victims that they are frequently portrayed to be. Many impoverished communities are home to perfectly able-bodied people, who have the potential to be trained and employed. This potential opportunity is taken away from them when adolescent and usually unskilled volunteers intervene with their so-called altruistic acts of philanthropy. Voluntourism can therefore have a detrimental effect on local economies.

But there’s more to voluntourism than a few weeks of amateur construction work; there’s also the customary visitation of orphanages. This is where voluntourism can become extremely problematic. Paying an organisation money to visit an orphanage commodifies orphans and directly creates a market for orphans. It can also lead to serious corruption, whereby orphanage owners purposely leave the orphanage in a poor condition as a means of convincing gullible tourists for donations. Again, the intentions of the tourist are no doubt good, but their acts of ‘charity’ can have a seriously harmful impact on the children they ironically seek to help. On the other hand, it is also important to mention that many voluntourism businesses do not conduct the correct background checks on many volunteers. Who are these people volunteering? Are they all as well-intentioned as we would like to believe? Unfortunately the sad reality is that, when mismanaged, voluntourism can directly relate to the exploitation of children.

Exploitation aside, even when good-intentioned volunteers bond with orphans, it still creates problems. Hugging and playing with an orphaned child might make a volunteer feel good and provide both them and the child with emotional satisfaction, but it is very short-lived as volunteers generally stay no longer than one month. It has been proven that this has serious negative psychological effects on the children. Caregivers working orphanages are responsible for looking after the children, a volunteer taking on such a role for a short amount of time, only to leave, leaves such children with a habitual sense of abandonment.

To reiterate my earlier note, this is not a complete condemnation of those involved in voluntourism, there are many arguments both for and against the practice of voluntourism. Nonetheless, there are many ethical considerations that should be taken seriously when partaking in such activities. Those with concrete skills that can directly benefit a community and provide long-term solutions (doctors, engineers, professional teachers, etc.) should most definitely use their skills for the betterment of the global south if they can. However, those without such skills should instead ask themselves what they can do to help their own communities. Surely an understanding of the laws, socio-economic structure, language, and culture of their own community means their contribution would be far more beneficial.



‘Is 2012 the year of the volunteer’: http://www.travelmole.com/news_feature.php?news_id=1151074

‘Is Voluntourism doing any good? No!’: http://www.wanderlust.co.uk/magazine/articles/destinations/is-voluntourism-doing-any-good-no?page=all


By Deena Abdo (Dubai Campus)



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