Is volunteer tourism a boon or bane? It is a much-needed debate on an emerging trend – one that many turn a blind eye to. Volunteer tourism, also known as voluntourism, is tourism with an emphasis on work contribution and helping out at local organisations. Volunteers say voluntourism is about a sense of moral duty and attaining a transformative experience for themselves, but research by experts in the field of sustainable tourism – such as Donald Brightsmith and Eliza Raymond – shows that it may be doing more harm than good.
Like everything else, voluntourism is becoming increasingly industrialised; with some organisations even monetising on the industry which was intended for “doing good”. It is not hard to see why many may be against it – voluntourism is a multi-billion dollar industry worth more than US$173 billion dollars as of 2017.
There are three main issues that bring about the adverse impact of voluntourism – its exploitation, misguided focus and the involvement of third-party websites.
Heartfelt Service or Commodity
Voluntourism may have initially stemmed from noble compulsions, but over time it has grown and become exploited as a commodity by some organisations. This is especially so in orphanage-tourism, whereby some orphanages purposefully maintain run-down, poor living conditions so that tourists will be compelled to donate more money when they visit. Even when it comes to constructing or painting buildings, organisations choose to provide these tasks to volunteers who pay the organization to be part of the cause – as opposed to spending money to hire locals for the job.
For instance, after the 2004 tsunami, hundreds of institutions were opened in Aceh, Indonesia. However, Maestral International – an organisation that advises on social welfare and child protection – found that more than 97% of the children in these institutes were not orphans and were in fact, brought in by their families so that they could get an education from the funds provided by volunteers.
Another classic example on the exploitation of voluntourism is Hope of Life International, a Christian mission in rural Guatemala. Hope of Life has scouts who look for ill infants in nearby mountain villages. When they do find a sick child, they alert the organisation instead of bringing the ailing child directly to the nearest hospital – which would have the best move given the time pressure. At this point, Hope of Life then assembles a team – accompanied by volunteers – to collect the child before bringing him or her to the hospital.
The organisation – which hosts hundreds of volunteers per month from North America alone – monetises on the chance for volunteers to be involved in a baby rescue. Volunteers who pay more are entitled to an air-conditioned suite with a private bathroom. Furthermore, as reported on The Guardian, a man who took employees of his company on trips to Hope of Life shared that his group pays US$1,500 extra for a baby rescue trip.
With all the funds Hope of Life receives, it could have focused on solving the root of the problem, poverty. Yet the organization chooses to only provide aid when the children fall ill as opposed to offering aid beforehand – the staff could have provided monetary aid, babies’ sanitary products, or even help the members of these impoverished families find a stable source of income.
Instead – given the newest trend of corporate volunteer trips – Hope of Life directed funds to building an executive conference centre in order to cater to these large corporate groups.
It’s All About
While these trips may serve as experiences that help volunteers boost their portfolio, their inexperience and lack of relevant skills undermine the initiatives they help out in during their travels. More often than not, the means of volunteer-involvement does not address the root cause of suffering; resulting in superficial engagements between volunteers and the host communities.
Furthermore, volunteers who travel to “make a difference” tend to end up doing more harm than good, primarily because voluntourism currently embraces a tourist-determined approach, as opposed to a community-driven one – it focuses on the volunteers’ experiential needs instead of the host organizations’ actual needs.
An editor from the Condé Nast Traveler wrote about a “failed voluntourism project” in Haiti; where a set of houses were built by volunteers from an American church. However, the volunteers failed to consider the needs of the people who would eventually reside in these homes. Despite the “improved” living conditions, the family members that moved into these homes lacked professional skills and still suffered from unemployment. Thus, they continued to beg for food as a source of livelihood.
However, the fault does not lie entirely with the volunteers; they arrive at their destinations with expectations based on what has perpetuated by the media – be it from celebrities or fellow peers. The problem lies when, instead of educating the volunteers and changing their perspective, some volunteer organisations endeavour to meet the expectations of volunteers; putting their needs first and the needs of the local communities second.
Simplicity Comes With a Cost
With voluntourism on the rise, many third-party sites have sprung up, acting as a liaison between volunteers and various organisations. These third-party agencies provide greater convenience, especially in the digital age. “It used to be if you wanted to volunteer abroad, you wrote letters to overseas contacts. Now you can buy a volunteer experience with just a few clicks,” says Claire Bennett, co-author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad.
What these agencies fail to inform volunteers is that – after deducting the costs for advertising, staff salaries and other administrative fees – only about half of the amount paid for abroad volunteer programmes goes to the respective beneficiaries. After deducting the volunteers’ food and accommodation costs, only about a quarter of the money paid goes directly to the local organizations.
Said organisations usually do not mention this to their volunteers either as these third-party agencies help them to reach out to many volunteers who may not have known about them otherwise. This is especially so for organisations which are highly dependent on or are running solely off on volunteer contributions.
It’s Not All Doom and Gloom
Despite its flaws, voluntourism is not completely dismissible as it still serves as a platform for inter-cultural exchange. Amidst an increasingly ethnocentric world, it is the cross-cultural engagement between volunteers and their host communities – as well as between volunteers from different countries – that aid in the appreciation of various cultures.
In addition, voluntourism has proven to be beneficial parties when it comes to conservation efforts. Donald Brightsmith – a research assist professor at Texas A&M University – explains the positive impact of voluntourism in conservation efforts: Voluntourists provide funding for research that is “chronically lacking”, researchers are able to make significant progress in their work due to the extra help, and volunteers receive the knowledge and skillset that can be imparted onto fellow peers or be used to help them become “young biologists, foresters, and veterinarians”.
Hence, voluntourism needs to be saved by changing its system, as opposed to being eliminated altogether.
Changing The Framework
Volunteer programmes need to be reworked in order for volunteers to have a more meaningful experience. Primarily, the focus has to be refocused back to the local communities themselves as opposed to the volunteers – they are merely a secondary. Organisations should attempt to ingrain this perspective into the minds of the volunteers so that – when these volunteers return back to their home countries – they will spread the word about the issues faced by their host communities, and not about their “Insta-worthy” experiences.
Dr. Nancy Gard McGehee, Professor and Head of the Hospitality and Tourism Management Department at Virginia Tech, seconds this notion. She mentions how she would like to see voluntourism recast as “transformational tourism”, whereby volunteers are rewarded by gaining a better understanding of the lives of people in these local organizations, and how the economics of charity work.
Furthermore, organizations need to better manage and oversee the volunteers’ engagement with the local communities to prevent any cross-cultural misunderstandings from arising. In addition to ensuring that volunteers are well-integrated with the host communities, organisations need to match volunteers to projects which are relevant to their current skill set.
Change Begins With Us
Volunteers like us play an integral role in evoking change in the voluntourism industry as well. For starters, avoid the hassle-free option of applying via third-party agencies and contact the local organisations instead. As mentioned before, these third-party platforms take a hefty portion of your project fees before giving what little is left to the intended organisations. If anything, these websites are useful platforms for volunteers who wish to make the trip but are unaware of the current projects that are running in the community.
Instead, source out for the relevant organisation once you have found your desired project, and contact them directly. While the changes to the project fees are minimal, the money paid by you will not be pocketed into avoidable third-party sites and instead be used entirely for the organisation.
Before applying for a volunteer trip, cross-check your current skill set with the needs of the organisation – it is meaningless if you travel all the way to the organisation only to realise that you do not have much to offer. In the worst-case scenario, offer to arrive a few days early to learn the skills needed to contribute to the project.
Be sure to enquire about the project fee and what the money is used for. Legitimate organisations that genuinely require aid are more likely to be comfortable with sharing records of where the money you paid is being channelled into.
Lastly, learn about the political, social, economic and cultural history of the community you intend to visit prior to your trip. This will make it easier for you to forge a bond with the locals and will provide you with a fresh, realistic perspective of what you will be facing. It is also essential for adapting into the culture of the community you will be visiting. The more you know, the less judgemental you will be – this will in turn aid in fostering a mutual understanding with the host community as well as the organisation.
Ultimately, whether voluntourism does more or harm depends on the volunteers themselves – it lies on their experiences, if they sound the alarm when something doesn’t add up and what they take away from their trips. Because in the end – when the time comes for you to make the trip – it is their reviews that you rely upon, and the cycle continues.