In a world where we are constantly seeing the harmful impacts of climate change, natural disasters, pandemic, and continuing wars that leave millions displaced, more people are looking for ways to lend a hand. In the last decade, trading a vacation to Europe for a volunteer program in an underdeveloped region is gaining more popularity. According to Save the Children, 1.6 million people volunteer abroad each year. Despite the good intentions, volunteer tourism is not making the positive impact that it aims to sell.
Voluntourism, or volunteer tourism, is when an individual travels to a developing country through a travel company with the intention of dedicating their time and services. Unlike traditional volunteer work through NGOs or nonprofit organizations, volunteer tourism accepts the help of untrained volunteers. These are projects that most anyone can do without specialized skills or a qualifying degree. Tourists pay a tour company for the opportunity to help on community projects, like building small homes or teaching English.
Unfortunately, travel companies have jumped on this high demand and have turned this into a profitable business, exploiting these already struggling communities in the process. This industry has grown to $2.6 billion worldwide with millions of volunteers every year. Because of this growing market, the focus is taken away from helping the community and onto the paying tourists, making sure they have an enjoyable “do good” experience.
Manufactured projects are created with the paying costumer in mind instead of the needs of the community. These tour operators typically have no experience working with vulnerable people and the projects do not reflect what the communities actually want and need.
Though voluntourism is steadily growing, it has received a lot of criticism in the last few years due to the harmful impacts on the communities it promotes to be helping. These organizations are selling tickets to impoverished areas for the “do good, feel good” experience. These programs are marketed with pictures of smiling children hugging the volunteers and boast of the positive impacts they have on the communities.
In response to its popularity, more people are applying for the wrong reasons. Students trying to boost their resume or university applications by volunteering for a couple weeks are common. As well as people with the desire to bring home photos of themselves with impoverished children to share on Facebook and feed their own ego.
Volunteers are doing jobs for free that members of the community could get hired to do, like construction. This leaves local laborers out of work. Because most of these volunteers are unskilled laborers, communities are often left with a structure of mediocre quality.
These volunteer vacations usually last between a few days and a couple weeks. The short-term nature of these trips makes it hard for volunteers to make a lasting impact. Think of what impact you can make by teaching in a school for only two weeks. And the high turnover rate of new volunteers makes it hard for the locals to build trusting relationships, especially young children. This perpetuates systemic power dynamics and reaffirms stereotypes of the ‘other’ which make it harder for the community to engage in self-driven projects.
Possibly the most harmful side effect of voluntourism is that most of the money that the volunteers have paid for this experience goes into the pockets of the tour companies and is never seen by the community. Tour companies are willfully unaware of what the community’s true needs are and ultimately manufacture projects that have no lasting impact.
Often the solution is simpler than we think. Just be a respectable tourist. Tourism can make a big economic impact on developing countries. According to BMZ, tourism strengthens the local economy, creates jobs, develops infrastructure, conserves cultural traditions and reduces poverty and inequality. Instead of giving your money to a third-party tourism company, put money directly into the pockets of community members by buying from small business, local artisans or dining at locally owned restaurants and cafes.
Ask yourself and research if donating your money could have a greater impact than your time. Unless you are a skilled worker, the best way to help is a donation to an NGO or local nonprofit. These organizations are made up of experienced professionals who work closely with members of the community to manage projects. They are also transparent about exactly how donations are used and the impact they have made.
If you still want to offer your time as a volunteer, check what kind of skills you have to offer. Are you a medical professional or a certified teacher or carpenter? There are tons of reputable NGOs on the front lines, working with communities and making a real difference. A couple of them include, Save the Children, Doctors without Boarders, CARE International and Action Against Hunger, all on the frontlines for human rights.
Rachel is a travel photographer and writer from Santa Barbara, CA. She is also the creator of Turtles Magazine. An avid adventurer, surfer and climber, she recently completed a solo trek through the High Sierra Mountains. Rachel is currently working on a project in the Bolivian jungle for a wildlife rescue sanctuary.