Voluntourism, if done well, can turn a vacation into a way to help people in other parts of the world, but there are some important cautions to consider.
by Wendy Priesnitz
Volunteer travel or “voluntourism” is also known as “travel philanthropy” or “ethical vacations.” Richard Edwards, Director of the non-profit Planeterra Foundation, which is a project of the travel company G.A.P. Adventures, defines it as “travel experiences that provide the opportunity to contribute to local community projects and development initiatives with some time off to visit the highlights of that particular destination or country.”
Experiences range from hundreds of thousands of volunteers removing invasive plants and planting trees in national parks, through saving sea turtles in Costa Rica and helping clean up after natural disasters, to providing medical aid in a remote part of India. Some voluntourism experiences involve extended stays, with large price tags, but there are also many less expensive and short-termed programs. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, more than fifty-five million Americans have participated in a volunteer vacation, and about one hundred million more are considering taking one.
With that level of popularity, there are bound to be both good and bad programs available. Ideally, a well-managed bit of volunteer work can help many projects that need a lot of willing hands and continued momentum, while funneling money into local economies. Voluntourism can also be a cultural exchange that leads to greater understanding among people.
So What’s the Problem?
Problems include projects that impose volunteers on host communities, programs that turn out not to exist and volunteers who exploit their hosts’ hospitality. Some critics feel that voluntourism may do more harm than good – both for volunteers and the communities they work with. Short-term voluntourists often arrive unskilled and untrained, and as a result, aren’t able to make an effective contribution and may end up adding to the general confusion despite their good intentions to help.
Voluntourism also raises some rather difficult questions about our relationship with the developing world and how we go about helping it. The UK-based charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) has warned that voluntourists risk becoming the “new colonialists” if attitudes to voluntary work in the developing world do not change, accusing tour companies of increasingly catering to the needs of travelers, rather than the communities they claim to support.
One of the concerns is that some work projects actually displace local workers and insinuate that they aren’t good enough to do the work themselves. In addition, critics believe that voluntourism doesn’t contribute enough money to local economies. If volunteers are busy working all the time, they’re not out supporting local tourist-related activities, which are often important to the financial survival of many local families. As a result, some organizations are now trying to incorporate more touristy activities into their volunteer projects.
Judith Brodie, director of the UK arm of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO UK), says, “While there are many good…providers, we are increasingly concerned about the number of badly planned and supported schemes that are spurious – ultimately benefiting no one apart from the travel companies that organize them. Young people want to make a difference through volunteering, but they would be better off traveling and experiencing different cultures, rather than wasting time on projects that have no impact and can leave a big hole in their wallet.”
Be an Ethical Voluntourist
So how do you choose a project that will work for you and the people you’ll be helping? Dr. Kate Simpson, a British academic who did her PhD research on voluntourism, has produced The Ethical Volunteering Guide to help potential volunteers identify a project that works for them and the place they want to visit. She says prospective voluntourists need to find out as much as possible about the work they will be doing as well as the organization they’ll be doing it for. Ask for both a project and a job description, whether the tour provider works with a local partner organization, and what support and training you will receive. Her Ethical Volunteering Guide also stresses the importance of investigating the organization’s policies on eco and ethical tourism, and how they are implemented.
Planeterra also has some suggestions for effective voluntourism opportunities. They say that programs must be set up to engage the voluntourist in task-specific scenarios so people can see the tangible results of their contributions and that trips ideally should be fourteen days long, but no shorter than five. According to Planeterra, there must be a designated tour leader or guide who helps facilitate the volunteer experience so that project staff members aren’t taken away from running their regular programs.
Projects must be ongoing and sustainable, meaning they are not simply there to entertain travelers. The focus must be sustainability, enabling projects to be taken over eventually by a community, thus minimizing dependence on outside help.
There is broad agreement for voluntourists to have realistic expectations of the experience. As Planeterra puts it, if you realize that you won’t change the world by volunteering for a few days, you will open yourself up to learn more about a local community that can be shared with others when returning home.
Browsing through people’s Facebook photos and Instagram accounts could make you wonder about the motivation of some people who embark on a voluntourism trip. And an article entitled #InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism, an experienced but increasingly cynical volunteer writes about the selfishness of some voluntourists: “I see three common types of photographs voluntourists share through social media: The Suffering Other, The Self-Directed Samaritan, and The Overseas Selfie.”
Finally, given the enormous carbon footprint of air travel, you might want to consider volunteer experiences close to home. There are many local or national organizations that would benefit from a few weeks’ help.
- When is my need to “do good” potentially a selfish act on my part?
- Am I helping or hindering by taking time and resources away from the community and project managers just so I have a “feel good” project to work on?
- Are valuable time, effort, and resources being wasted and misappropriated just to prepare for and accommodate a voluntourist?
- Can I really make a contribution in a lasting, significant way in the short time I’m there?
- Is the project just a “front” for fundraising or attempt to generate exposure, creating contrived situations for my benefit, and not really for the benefit of the community?
The 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life by Pam Grout (National Geographic, 2009)
Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others by Bill McMillon, Doug Cutchins, Anne Geissinger (Chicago Review Press, 2009)
Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life’s editor and a journalist with over 40 years of experience.