Voluntourism: Helping Whom?

A growing number of people want to travel in a different manner and do something useful. To address the demand, travel agencies have developed a new product: voluntourism—combining tourism activities in the South and volunteering work to teach English to children, assist indigenous populations, or save pandas. This type of flexible and short-term volunteering is often presented as development aid, but does it truly benefit local people more than travellers?

The (connected) white savior

With an estimated 10 million volunteers a year spending up to USD 2 billion, voluntourism has become a profitable niche. The new market for voluntourism is exploding. As is the number of selfies stigmatising local people and misery in order to show one’s best profile on social networks. It can be argued that the face of international voluntourism would be different if there were no social media audiences. A selfie with African children can perpetuate the idea that only Western aid can save the world. In addition, those children are usually portrayed in a poor and tragic context, next to the volunteer acting as the superhero.

Barbie Savior Instagram “It’s so sad they don’t have enough trained teachers here. I’m not trained either, but I’m from the West.”

Run by two former aid workers, the Instagram Barbie Savior parodies the white savior complex of some voluntourists, Westerners travelling to third world countries and presenting the exercise as a self-congratulatory sacrifice. Staging Barbie on a mission in Africa was a success, gathering over 18,000 followers within a month. Another critique is the video “how to get more likes on social media” from the Norwegian NGO SAIH, well-known for its work on the representation of the global South.

 

In the Huffpost, Pippa Biddle concludes that: “Sadly, taking part in international aid where you aren’t particularly helpful is not benign. It’s detrimental. It slows down positive growth and perpetuates the white savior complex that, for hundreds of years, has haunted both the countries we are trying to ‘save’ and our (more recently) own psyches.”

Impacts of voluntourism on the ground: positive, useless or harmful?

Discover new cultures. Broaden your horizons. Better grasp what is at stake in development. Although voluntourism has some recognized benefits, those are usually for the travellers. Their impact on the local communities are difficult to measure but many argue that they create more harm than good.

A major risk to point out is that people pay for volunteering but there is no selection and no assessment regarding their background, motivation, technical, professional or linguistic skills. While it is difficult to build a library without construction skills or to run a children activity without speaking the language, the boom of voluntourism can cause absurd problems or real harm. Here are some examples:

  • Poor children leave their family to make up fake orphanages for tourists (and suffer from attachment disorders linked to high turnover of volunteers).
  • Different tourists come every month to paint the wall of the same school in a different colour.
  • Local workers are left out without a job to let an increasing number of voluntourists to clumsily build new schools or orphans.
  • Or local workers are asked to fix (undo and redo) the unsuitable job at night so nobody notices.
  • Non-medical volunteers distribute medicine in hospitals and provides basic care.
  • Other harmful effects are risks associated to child sexual abuse with orphans.

Looking for more constructive alternatives

I was surprise to discover that the literature legitimises voluntourism to some extent. Amoz Hor argues that hating voluntourists is mostly defensive while Rachel Kurzyp adds that we face two choices: not to help them and complain that they are doing it wrong; or help them do it right.

Kurzyp argues that we often tend to criticise voluntourists or believe that they should leave the word’s problems to the professionals. The author concedes that she has been involved in poor development practices in the past, however she doesn’t regret them as she has learned from those life-changing moments overseas. What were her motivations then? Personal fulfilment, career aspirations and a desire to help. Those elements are also what is driving others. They don’t want to cause harm and are open to information. We should thus educate them instead of discouraging them or focusing on what people are doing wrong.

We need to find alternatives outside the traditional development sector that have the engaging and accessible qualities of volunteering and travelling overseas, without harmful effects.

Kurzyp claims that our critiques prevent a two-way dialogue, by creating an ‘us vs. them’ culture. I agree that criticising is not constructive and just puts off motivated people, however I don’t think she is offering much of an alternative either.

An article in the Muse backs up Kurzyp and the idea that we need to start being honest about why we travel and why we volunteer. “Because the reality is that travel, at its core, has always been more about ourselves than about anyone else. Let’s acknowledge that volunteering isn’t so different.”

Similarly, in his article on searching for redemption, Amoz Hor shows that while some real aid workers hate voluntourists and call such trips ‘hug vacations’ to feel good about themselves, others acknowledge that perhaps their own motives were not so different.

According to Hor, for the aid workers who feel bitter about amateurs, it is also about reassuring themselves that what they do is a profession and has legitimacy. However, this approach remains anti-participatory and the voices of the local beneficiary remains unheard. Aid workers claim to be in touch with the real issues and represent local beneficiaries, but tacitly reduce them to an object. In sympathising with the victims, they don’t give them a voice to represent themselves and their own projections. “Rather, we hear the narratives we want to hear. It is to use the local beneficiary as an instrument to reclaim one’s lost honour. In attempting to redeem others, aid workers are actively attempting to redeem oneself.”

When business seizes volunteering… “Exceptional offer: 1000€ the humanitarian mini-trip!”
By Pierredh [CC BY-SA 3.0] / Wikimedia Commons

Volunteering voluntourism

In my opinion, many articles addressing the topic of voluntourism often drift to volunteering in a more general term and makes the distinction blurred. Voluntourism can be defined as a combination of tourism and short-term volunteering, usually offered through travel agencies. Volunteering is cooperation work for development NGOs which provides skilled professionals for a particular project and for a long(er) period of time. I’m not saying that those programs always perfectly work (I speak from experience), but the angle is very different to paying for a two-week project that combines constructing a school with a safari.

Voluntourist missions are usually sold as being about development: helping improve locals’ conditions, reducing poverty, or saving abandoned children. I’m very critical of the fact that tour operators profit from misery on one hand and naive people’s good intentions on the other. This colonialist discourse makes tourists think they will save the world and perpetuates the white savior stereotype.

What we currently call voluntourism should be labelled differently and sold as ‘awareness experience’. Some travel agencies have moved in that direction, offering full immersion journeys in partnership with an NGO. Here, it’s not about aid but about an equal to equal exchange. Maybe the right path to follow…

 

6 Comments

  1. Nicole

    This is a really interesting topic and discussion you have outlined here Natacha -clearly a lot of debate about the pros, cons and ethics attached to such ‘travels’.
    Important to distinguish between volunteers, with skills and time to offer to address specific needs, compared to voluntourism.
    In the last paragraph you talk about traveling with an NGO – but I wonder how this is any different/better if people are still ‘observing’ without real purpose?
    Another question is about money – travel agents profit, but do the local communities receive payments too; can they benefit from renting accommodation, selling food, handicrafts, etc?

    1. Natacha

      Thank you Nicole.

      Travelling with an NGO, or what I label as ‘awareness experience’, is in my opinion a good consensus. I see it better than the classic voluntourism in the sense that people are not expecting the save the world and then have a distinct approach regarding their potential impact. It is about exchanging and learning, rather than helping or assisting.

      Regarding your question about money, the research supports that besides expensive fees (from 700 to 2200€ for 2 weeks, not including the flight!) only a tiny part goes back to the local association or community… who often believes to deal with ‘volunteers’. On the other hand, the profit from the agencies is estimated to 30 to 40%. So maybe the local community sell a few handicrafts but the benefits seem disproportionate if we loo at the whole picture.

      I hope this helps!

  2. Qudsia Kiran

    I really enjoyed reading your post.

    I agree that the romanticized notion of being able to help impoverished communities and to create a ripple effect of positivity blinds travelers from the impacts they are actually leaving behind.
    The idea of ‘contributing to a community,’ whether by helping to build wells, schools, or even volunteering in an orphanage, however, do not necessarily result in long-term positive effects for the people they intend to help.
    It would be great to acknowledge the difference between voluntourism and volunteering.
    I think, the gesture of volunteering abroad is well-intentioned and admirable, but the execution of such trips remains harmful for the native communities. So if one is set on embarking on a volunteer trip, thorough research must be done beforehand on the purposes behind and consequences of a given trip.

    1. Natacha

      Indeed, the offer for voluntourism is large and the quality and the approach vary a lot from one programme to another. Solid beforehand research about the agency and the project is an essential starting point!

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  4. Mirna

    Hello, this is increasingly a hot topic as the line between volunteering and voluntouring is so shady. I too worked (and still am working) with an NGO on a volunteer basis. This started through a research course and we (NGO and I) just decided to continue collaborating. I was very conscious of this discourse and actually even afraid to take many photos for fear of falling into the Barbie Savior trap.
    I do think that the local organization/community should not profit simply from the engagement with the tourist/volunteer agency and the volunteer. This would result in the points you mention above (e.g. fake orphanage). The community’s profit will be the volunteer’s work, which means it has to be identified as needed. Also, the volunteer needs to undergo some basic sort of ethics training. Ideally, the experience should be a sort of learning exchange, which really is not that straight forward.
    Also, the argument about prioritizing the doing something for others before ourselves is very tricky. Most of us in development feel this need for purpose, we want to help, but ultimately it is about ourselves and fulfilling this need of ours (not theirs). And, even though the intention may be there, in praxis things can be very different as we all know. It’s a slippery slope.
    Anyway, all this to say that volunteering is to be done with extreme caution and that it is difficult to find the best way. Good to talk about though, so thanks for the post (and apologies for the rambling).

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