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Defining Voluntourism and Identifying How to Spot it

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

It’s hard to believe anything referencing volunteering could be negative. However, volunteer tourism, often called voluntourism, is far from a positive experience for the local community. Each year, those in wealthy countries flock to places in need for a mere week or two expecting to help. Specifically, university students and church groups will embark on voluntourist trips that are disguised as philanthropic opportunities.

Many program websites have pictures of voluntourists (who are typically white) spending time and “changing the lives” of the native people (who are typically of color).  This representation is offensive and portrays the White Savior Industrial Complex, which has existed since colonialism. It is the idea that wealthy Westerners can help the developing world because they come from privilege and consider themselves  better than others.

Voluntourists are also rarely skilled. Many organizations, regardless of whether they work with children, do medical work or build infrastructure, do not have eligibility requirements for program participants. But, when you bring individuals into a poor area to build something such as water pumps or schools, you’re taking away the jobs from locals who are desperate for money. The Guardian points out that these volunteers are paying to be there… so really the charities are making money. And why would they want to pay a local for labor when they can yield a profit? So organizations prioritize the voluntourist over the very individuals they’re supposed to be helping. In turn, it creates a cycle of dependence where locals need foreigners for the work to get done. Even if the work is done adequately, a new school doesn’t fix a crumbling education system, so the impact of these volunteers is questionable. This can increase the percentage of locals in poverty because they aren’t being employed and there are no true improvements to their quality of life.

Poorer governments are also eager to allow charities to take care of their constituents because it alleviates them of the burden. This is mainly applied to children, because many organizations work with orphanages. However, with little government involvement many places turn into nightmares for the very children they’re supposed to be helping. In Guatemala, Disability Rights tells the story of the horrendous conditions of Colectivo Vida Independiente de Guatemala. The organization was created to house children with disabilities. But the admirable feat quickly turned into a life of mental, emotional, physical and even sexual abuse. It resulted in 41 girls being burned to death in March 2017 for standing up against the forced prostitution and sexual violence that staff members had forced on them. Organizations like these eagerly accept checks from abroad volunteers and allow them to ‘help’ for a few days. Volunteers are then unknowingly supporting abusive and illegal practices.

While voluntourism isn’t helpful, it’s important to note that these trips don’t just focus on volunteering. Instead, they provide an excuse or resource for individuals to travel to exotic destinations they wouldn’t normally visit. Often times, organizers of trips include time during the duration of the trip to visit local attractions. This takes away from the time they could be dedicating to helping the area. This is why the practice has been referred to as voluntourism.

Millennials especially like to capture photos of themselves within the community to share on social media platforms. They are able to share pictures of beautiful places and then exploit the individuals in their photos for affirmation from their followers. When their followers see these posts, they are encouraged to support these programs, or worse… join one! If their followers choose to donate, their monetary donation can further push the area into poverty because  the money isn’t used to supply locals with food, water or sustainable jobs. In places like Guatemala, the money is used to further torture innocent children.

When individuals devote their time overseas, it is likely they will not volunteer locally when they return. Making a difference takes time. It is more beneficial when an individual can devote a smaller amount of time over a longer period. This allows an organization to help sustain itself and true change to occur.

By no means are all abroad volunteer organizations poor, but it is vital that each person extensively research all aspects of his or her trip before going on one. This helps ensure that the trip is responsibly planned. Only then, will you know that your trip truly benefits the community rather than yourself.  

You can be a volunteer or a tourist, but you can’t be both. Make a choice. VolunTour No More.

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Chan, a nine-year-old, was forced to sing and dance for volunteers who visited her orphanage. She, along with the other children who called the institution home, were so hungry that they would search

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