Volunteer work performed in developing countries has the power to deliver impactful social programs, the existence of which might not otherwise be possible. But, when considering a stint of “voluntourism” – an emerging phenomenon among privileged travelers – the effectiveness of, and motivations behind, such jaunts overseas must be examined in-depth in order to avoid the trap of moral imperialism, the idea that wealthier and better educated individuals can, and should, invade unfamiliar cultures and “change things for the better.”
Together with Alexandra Plummer, a development expert who just relocated back to Europe from Asia after working in international development for the last seven years, we explore whether it is indeed possible to have a truly fulfilling and impactful voluntouring experience.
- Voluntourism is an emerging phenomenon among privileged travelers. Essentially it unites volunteering and traveling. Despite being founded on good intentions, the effectiveness of, and motivations behind, such jaunts overseas must be examined in-depth in order to avoid the trap of moral imperialism.
Heading abroad? Hoping to combine a bit of adventure with a bout of “feel goodism?” Here are few tips for getting and giving the most out of your volunteer stint.
Voluntourism does not have the best rep at the moment. There are a multitude of reasons the term itself conjures hostility; questions regarding impact, issues of sustainability, and the destruction of local job opportunities… to name but a few. However, volunteerism did emerge with good intentions, and at a time when its potential impact is necessary. As we have become an increasingly interconnected world, the time has come to bridge the gaps between cultures and ideas. We have begun to merge systems that once sat in opposition: East has met West, profit has met nonprofit, economic gain has met spiritual gain, etc.
So, combining the largest industry in the world – tourism – with the desire to help, seems like a no-brainer. Although we are a long way from being able sing the praises of voluntourism from our beach-shacks, it does not mean we must avoid it at all costs; we just need to think before we act. Consider ways you can make your trip abroad personally satisfying while also being mindful of the places you are visiting. Unfortunately, good intentions are not sufficient; you are visiting an unfamiliar place, treading on new territory, munching on novel food, and meeting people with different mindsets and ideas than your own. This is an exciting opportunity, but one that requires you to pack your smarts.
Perhaps you want to start with these 5 questions…
5 questions to ask yourself before you embark on your journey abroad to help:
“Does my butt look big in this?”
Only kidding – don’t ever ask that. However, do ask yourself if you should be giving away your “too small for me now, anyway” jeans, and other unwanted items, to that “poor looking” village; do it wisely. A developing country is not your wasteland for unwanted items, no matter how strong a “feel good buzz” this form of charity provides. Some charities are really in need of these items – just drop them a line before you depart, and ask them what they need. Once you have arrived, don’t take it upon yourself to distribute items in a village – this results in a culture of dependency, and traps communities in the cycle of poverty.
“How many pencils does it take to build a classroom?”
Donating tangible goods is always an appealing charitable option, and it is indeed a necessity, especially in the case of ecological or other emergencies. For instance, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the detrimental effects of annual flooding make last minute donations of food items, mosquito nets, and medicine crucial for the social stability of the community. However, one should always speak to local organizations before bringing donations overseas. Some items, like stationary and health kits, are better sourced locally, as their production supports the regional economy. Really listen to the organization’s needs – they know best. Sometimes, it may be a less sexy item – like supporting someone’s salary, or a training project – that leads to a more sustainable outcome.
“Is something really better than nothing?”
Many maintain that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert in a given skill or field – be it juggling, photography, or teaching. Think, for example, about how long it has taken you to hone your natural skills, transforming them into work or action you are proud of and eager to flaunt. Some believe entering a classroom with little or no skill is “enough,” so to speak, in a developing country. This idea – that “something is better than nothing” – is a shaky leg to stand on. If you are a qualified teacher, by all means let your skills be known. If not, it is smart to stick to your alternative skill set and ruminate on how, exactly, it can be applied in a useful and sustainable way. You are unique and, as such, have interesting, individual strengths, so share them! Perhaps offer a workshop, or host a Q&A session. Think of these as skill-sharing opportunities – of course, you are not going to change the world overnight, but you may as well have fun, inspire others, and learn something yourself along the way. That being said, participating in international aid for which your skill set is not particularly helpful can hinder local productivity and perpetuate the “savior complex,” so if your strengths are not applicable to a particular community problem, the world might be better served by you reconsidering your trip altogether.
“How can I ask the right questions?”
If you have a comprehensive understanding of the problems a particular community is facing, and believe your distinct skill set will not only provide helpful short-term support, but also facilitate the continued development of long-term solutions for that region, you may decide that it is indeed a good idea to pursue voluntourism. In order to choose a program that is not only personally fulfilling, but also culturally sensitive and actually beneficial to the developing community it aims to support, it is crucial to ask the tour companies you are considering about their relationship with their NGO partners. Contact someone who has participated in the particular trip before, as well as someone working in the country you are visiting, to gain some realistic insight into the tour company’s and NGO partner’s motives and impact. If you learn that a given tour company is somehow inhibiting the livelihood of regional communities – for example by depriving local individuals or community groups of compensation for development work – travel with somebody else.
“Can I really make a difference?”
You must choose a group that allows you to learn about development issues and spurs you to action – if your interest in a situation or issue is piqued by your experience, then you will be inspired to spend the rest of your year, or your life, trying to effect change. Development work is no walk in the park – it is difficult, time-consuming, and often emotionally jarring. But, we must also recognize that voluntourism is more often than not more beneficial for the volunteer than the community or individuals they are hoping to help. It is entirely acceptable, and probably preferable, to choose a tour company that acknowledges this fact, over one sells the trip as “life-changing” for the community you are visiting. Ultimately, the people we are visiting abroad may very well have more to teach us than we have to teach them. But, it is necessary to demand responsible practice from tour operators, speak out against harmful action against developing communities, and seek out only those opportunities that will allow you not only to learn from your experience, but also to have the greatest positive impact possible in a short period of time.
With thanks to Alexandra Plummer for kicking off this article on responsible voluntourism.
Originally published July 21, 2015