Declared by Ian Birell in The Guardian on 14 November 2010, voluntourism is “the fastest-growing sector of one of the fastest-growing industries on the planet”. As with many fast-growing sectors that give little time for impact analysis, there is much debate on the benefits and pitfalls of voluntourism. This article explains voluntourism and its pros and cons. The article will conclude with the question of whether there is really a need for do-gooder rich tourists to come and save the poor people, or whether the need is for those rich tourists to broaden their education and experience in order to find better solutions to solve the challenges of the developing world. My view is a bit of both: cross-cultural dialogue and genuine capacity development is beneficial for both sides.
Voluntourism is basically travel which includes volunteering. It is becoming the travel trend for high school and college students looking to improve their resume. Recently, however, there has been an increase in baby boomer volunteers. Regardless the age, voluntourists tend to be people who want to make a positive change in the world while also enjoying some holiday travel. They want to increase their awareness of other cultures, understand the challenges faced in developing countries, and generally educate themselves about the wider world. At the same time many want to have an experience that might give their life new meaning and change the way they think. Others are simply wanting to give to others during their experience and do not believe it will change how they think or live when they return home.
There are benefits for both the volunteer and the beneficiary in voluntourism. Projects that receive volunteers have access to more resources, both financial and human. The local projects can have access to expert knowledge if they specifically request a volunteer with needed skills. With these resources the project can probably grow and have greater impact than it would otherwise. For the volunteer, they gain a new perspective and have the opportunity to truly experience the culture, the food, and the people. Making friends across cultures can only benefit the wider world as understanding of our differences increase tolerance and decreases racism.
The pitfalls are more widely publicised. The corruption and exploitation of the communities which the projects are supposed to be helping, just to access the above-mentioned resources is a major problem. Tour operators and voluntourism agencies that facilitate the experiences cater to the needs of the volunteers rather than the project because that is where the money is coming from. There are reports of projects deliberately kept in bad condition to ensure the funding continues. Construction activities are not really helpful as labour is a job anyone can do, so bringing a rich tourist to dig holes or lay bricks means that a local person does not have a job. The organisations hosting the volunteer have to provide someone to look after the volunteer, taking a valuable human resource away from their real work. In orphanages, abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to carers and it can be traumatic for them to constantly have those attachments broken by each volunteer returning home. In the same Guardian article quoted in the introduction, Alexia Nestoria who worked for a voluntourism organisation said that “the funding [the volunteers] bring with them is the attractive part” and often the work they do is unnecessary.
Does that mean we should just send money and forget about the experience? I don’t think so, but there are a few measures that can be taken to make sure the experience is beneficial for both parties:
- One of the most important (and most often neglected) steps is to talk to the community and ask what they need.
- The project should focus on development that involves local people directly
- It is essential that volunteers are qualified and well-informed. A working with children check or a police check should be required if applicable.
- Ensure you are not taking a job from a local. For example, there are many foreign volunteers teaching in Malawi and it has become cheaper for the government to rely on those volunteers than pay local teachers.
- Investigate what happens when the volunteers leave. Is the project sustainable and supported by the community? There is no use installing a water pump if no one in the village is trained to maintain the pump.
- Ask questions. What am I doing that’s truly helpful? What does the volunteer agency do to give back? What happens to my money?
It would be better to simply travel and spend money through normal transactions if the time and useful skills are not available. It doesn’t improve anyone’s situation to do something just to save our own consciences.
Living in Kenya, my own views rely on my experience here. But I believe you could replace “Africa” with “Asia” or “South America” in this paragraph. It is fallacy to think that a few foreign volunteers can “save Africa”. Only Africans can save Africa. But voluntourists with specific skills can train people in those skills. True capacity development should be the focus rather than people simply wanting to “do good”. On the other hand, it is not about the impact on Africa necessarily. Just as important is the impact on the volunteer. If their world view is changed, if their tolerance is increased, if their prejudice is decreased, if their awareness is raised, if their education is broadened, then it is a good thing. You don’t know which college student spending a month volunteering in Kenya will go on to wield significant influence in business or government and have that experience of Africa to help him make positive decisions for a better world. Ian Birell cynically suggests that “voluntourism” is more about the self-fulfilment of westerners than the needs of developing nations. I agree, but I’m not convinced it’s entirely a bad thing. A foreign voluntourist allows the opportunity for cross cultural dialogue, which reduces prejudice on both sides. For example, last year a young Ugandan wrote to me through my business Facebook page asking for any opportunities to work. Although I didn’t have anything available for him an email conversation ensued and we shared our stories. One day he asked to connect through my personal page and he was shocked to realise that I wasn’t a black Kenyan, rather a white Australian. He said that if he had known he would not have shared so much and written a much more formal email in the first place. I told him I would not have tried so hard trying to find him a position elsewhere if he had written as such. Our friendship has grown over the months and I think his attitude towards mzungus (foreigners) has changed.