Fixing Voluntourism

Cover image:  I took this photo when volunteering at a youth summer sports camp near Luga, Russia. These young ladies were waiting to go on stage for a talent show.  

Throughout my junior high and high school years I participated in 11 two-week or one-month trips to 9 different nations (mostly in Latin America countries) with Christian organizations. For years now, I’ve wanted to write about and publish my personal experiences with short term mission, humanitarian and voluntourism trips.  Specifically, I wanted to write about the negative effects and why I even felt ashamed at my previous involvement in some cases. I started this blog and knew that these topics would probably appear in future posts. Here is the first.

Volunteering Abroad: Definition

Let’s answer the question, “What is voluntourism?” It is a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity (per Google). When paired with a holiday, volunteering abroad is typically short-term, as opposed to a year stint with the Peace Corps or something like that. Participants pay for airfare, accommodation, food and a fee towards whatever project they are working on or for the host organization, but a large part goes to the coordinating agency. Mission trips and relief trips fit into this category if the volunteers have a free day to play tourist, see the sites and purchase souvenirs.

People volunteer abroad for multiple reasons. Reports of natural disasters behoove some to go and lend a helping hand. Some are led by their heart for people living in poverty. Service-learning trips, such as medical missions, provide experience for students, while bringing care to the sick of international communities. Some feel they have a message of spiritual importance to share with foreign souls. Individuals interested in working in the International Development field need the experience to apply for their dream job, one that sends them around the world and aligns with their passion for helping others. Maybe concern over global warming lead some to go plant native trees or plants in a rain forest.

A Bad Rap

With a rise in popularity (1.6+ million humanitarian travelers a year) and an influx of agencies, voluntourism has become a $172 Billion industry (a commonly quoted number, though I need to research the source to verify). But it has also come under much scrutiny. Despite wonderful intentions, badly managed and mass voluntourism has unintentionally caused some serious issues.

There are many articles condemning the practice of volunteering abroad, but I recently saw a really great one: 7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip To Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on “Service Trips” and thought, dang, she beat me to it. Michelle clearly and concisely goes through said reasons with explanations, gives examples (or challenges) of alternative opportunities, and provides multiple resources for further reading and viewing. And she’s snarky. I like her. Read it.  Another similar list is given in an article by Daniela Papi with real life examples of common mistakes she experienced as a part of the voluntourism market.

For those who don’t have time to read the “7 Reasons” article now, here are the points:

  1. They are entirely too focused on how the volunteers benefit
  2. The lasting impact of short-term voluntourism trips is often negligible
  3. “Voluntourism” is offensive and can even contribute to further problems
  4. They’re an egregious waste of money
  5. They promote a cycle of dependence
  6. There’s a difference between skilled and unskilled help
  7. They promote the western savior complex

The rest of this post is written very broadly, not getting into details of medical or construction missions, volunteering with children, or religious proselytization just yet. The cycle of dependence and the western savior complex deserve their own post in the near future. Stay tuned.

The Dilemma: Can wanting to do good really be that bad?

There were many positive outcomes from my trips, but as Michelle said, they were mostly beneficial to me. After asking friends about their short-term international outreach experiences, they too recognized their own personal advantage but wondered about the success of the mission and livelihoods of the people they were meant to help.

I was a kid. We were all unskilled kids.

For me, these trips were a learning experience. Getting exposure to different cultures, learning and speaking (poorly) five different languages, recognizing the joy and simplicity that people could live in without all the brand-name goods that Americans fight over on Black Friday – these were all wonderful lessons. My resume was looking really good and I was experiencing all the benefits of altruism.

But, most of my trips were led in an ethnocentric way.  As I got older, I realized this and it caused a lot of dissonance for me during the trips. I questioned the authenticity, the purpose and my participation. I just wanted to help, to love, to learn.

It’s hard to admit that these trips were probably insignificant or might have had unintended consequences for the host community, because they were literally life-changing for me.  They gave me a global mindset, broadened my horizons and led me towards what would become my career path. I was bitten by the travel bug, affected by wanderlust. The world was my classroom.

But, I digress…

The dilemma is that there are good examples of voluntourism managed properly and there are many good-hearted people going on these trips, but mass production, commercialism and lack of knowledge is causing the international development and foreign aid communities to want to put up a big halt sign on the practice.

Can we fix the voluntourism system?

Is it possible? One friend, who has participated in medical trips, suggested that the only way to ensure quality standards would be for all international humanitarian trips to be tracked by one agency – “a grand idea but nearly impossible for now.”  Another suggested that the only way to ensure positive impact is by partnering with a local, established organization with proven results. Keeping accountable all the volunteer travel agencies or church groups to that standard is also a massive feat. Perhaps the establishment of a watchdog organization that monitors and reviews the agencies would help. The only answer I have been able to come up with is: education.

There are so many well-written articles about the pros and cons of voluntourism, so why do I need to write about it?

Because my sphere of influence has not heard it yet. Continued education and awareness are the quickest and main way we can mitigate the unintended consequences of volunteering abroad.

If you want to travel, by all means travel! Open your mind to the world around you and participate in cultural exchange. Buy local and support sustainable efforts when you do. One of the in-country contacts that I worked with during a mission trip, and now a dear friend, recently told me that the economic impact of the team spending their money, buying locally and employing local transportation, etc… probably had a larger more positive impact on the host community than the purpose of the trip itself. And that could have been done as a simple tour group.

If you want to help those in need, do your research! Find an organization that you can give to with your time or financially – one that has proven effective and long-term results. This goes for at home and abroad.

Should the internet and media continue to speak against voluntourism and attempt to stop it? No. Providing solutions is always better than complaining about the problem. Besides, voluntourism is not going to stop. People want to travel and sometimes they want to volunteer during their trips. Many travel for the sole purpose of volunteering. They simply need to be educated on the best way.  So, let’s start to do that by highlighting the positive stories and the learning experiences that will shift the way we approach volunteering abroad.

Here are some articles to get you started:


A Final Note

Let me go ahead and say it now: orphanage tourism is not okay! Unless you are a certified health care provider filling a gap for service that isn’t available locally – you do not need to volunteer at an orphanage. It doesn’t matter if you’re bringing hygiene items, shoes, toys, hugs or Jesus. Unless you personally know, trust and were invited by the director of the orphanage, are planning on being there for a long time (year +), or are only planning to work with adults while NOT taking their jobs… then you do not need to volunteer at an orphanage.  More information on why in a future post, but you can research ahead of time, if interested:


One thought on “Fixing Voluntourism

  1. Interesting discussion. Having been on ‘the other side’ of the coin, the subject and more specifically the blog caught my attention because in countries like mine (Honduras) it would seem the groups/individuals taking part in such missions are not always fully aware of the impact these trips can have.

    I have seen both the great side, which is meeting great people that changed my life such as the Nylece, Russell, Jennifer, and Kerri who showed kindness, true friendship and a strong commitment to improving the lives of those touched during such trips.

    I have also seen the not so bright side of it. For example when I was part of a mission where one of the medical team members literally asked the translators to wait at the end of the line, because locals were not at the same level as the American team – and even asked for us, the interpreters, to be placed at a separate place when eating. Or one other person who told me that I should be more grateful for being part of their family, since I only had ‘rice n beans’ to eat back home. You can imagine what my first reaction was (kept it to myself until now).

    It took me a while to get over that, and really understand that these two people do not represent the whole. That the system (selection and management) is what needs to be changed. And that I had to remain open for those who were there for the right reasons, else I would miss a unique opportunity to help, to learn, and to love.

    Volunteerism is much needed, but it indeed needs to be carefully rethought to fulfill that purpose for which it was created…

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s