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The Voluntourist

Why we still volunteer abroad

The idea of voluntourism has been celebrated and mocked, praised and challenged. From the NY Times to satirical videos, the terms 'voluntourist' and 'voluntourism' are more widely used than ever. People are also starting to accept "voluntourism" as more than just a playful term. They're questioning the practice and asking "how ethical is this?"

Despite criticism of voluntourism, travel companies continue to rationalize why volunteering abroad makes sense. The volunteer travel industry presents their trip packages as meaningful, life-changing, and affordable. Especially for young and unskilled people, the trips look attractive. And when there is a clamor for a service and the chance to make money, the market responds by offering opportunity.

Yet there must be a root cause, beyond the vague desire to do good, that causes well-meaning people to buy into the voluntoursim experience. There must be a reason that, despite all the evidence that it isn't efficient or in the best interest of communities, people are doing it anyways.

What Drives Us to Volunteer Abroad?

If you look at the volunteer travel industry just from the perspective of the volunteers, it's a pretty sweet gig. It makes sense why people want to take part. People volunteer, and will continue to volunteer abroad, because:

  • Hard work feels good
  • They crave adventure
  • They want to learn about themselves
  • They want to learn about the world around them
  • They want to open their eyes
  • The things they see stay with them for a lifetime
  • No one should have to live in poverty
  • Everyone should have access to clean water and reliable healthcare
  • Education is a human right
  • Bureaucracy moves too slowly
  • They want to help...

However, this is a cripplingly narrow way of looking at the industry. In exploring voluntourism, we need to take into account the opinions of locals and industry professionals who know the space.

Remember Who We're Supposed to be Helping

In a series of articles published in 2007 as part of the Brookings Institution's Brookings Policy Brief Series, David L. Caprara et. al. argue some of the benefits of volunteer travel. They emphasized the positive impacts service work has on those taking part and write that international volunteers "tend to develop enduring habits of civic engagement." This improves both the lives of communities abroad and the volunteers' communities back home.

Volunteering abroad

I will never argue that volunteer trips, both domestic and abroad, aren't positive learning and growth opportunities for those who take part. That would be a stupid argument to make, especially because I believe that who I am today was shaped by the travel I’ve been able to do, some of it voluntourism.

From packing vegetables for underprivileged families in Connecticut to working with HIV+ children in the Dominican Republic, I am who I am because of the perspective and scope afforded me through volunteer work. Even my ill-fated trip to Tanzania made me more socially and globally aware, fueling what has become a passion for sustainable, community-focused development.

But let’s take who I’ve become, and how every person who volunteers is changed, off of the table, because that isn’t supposed to be the purpose of volunteer travel in the first place. Almost every piece I write is met with the same line of criticism, “but it changes my/my child’s life, so isn’t is worth it?” I’m sorry, but no, that’s not a good enough reason.

If your purpose in going abroad is to help someone else, but you measure the success of your mission by how much you’ve helped yourself, then you are balancing the wrong moral budget lines.

This isn't to say that you should absolutely never volunteer abroad, but do so with others in mind. Make sure your motives are truly unselfish and that you have something valuable to give.

Adjusting Our Methods and Marketing

There are good reasons for why we are drawn to voluntourism trips. It’s also easy to buy into the hype when your role models are encouraging you to take part, but as long as the success of a trip is measured by the volunteer's experience, we’re looking at the wrong side of the equation. We are doomed to failure.

Rather than trying to measure the benefit to the volunteer, we should be looking at quantifying the benefit to the community. It's a process of observation and study that leads to more sustainable development work without having to kill opportunities for travel and adventure altogether. After all, we absolutely still want to encourage volunteership.The impulse that inspires a young person to volunteer is the right impulse and the reasons that they want to go are good reasons.

Skilled volunteers

Intent is not the problem. Execution is. Now we have to take that impulse direct it towards the most morally sound and productive response: traveling in a way that empowers and invests in local communities rather than presuming what’s right for them and prescribing our unskilled young people as the solution.

What Does This Mean For Me?

Wanting to travel isn't a bad thing, and wanting to give back isn't a bad thing either, but the combination of traveling to new places and doing development work is rarely as simple as trip providers and travel organizations make it out to be. Instead of buying into the hype, think about these points before planning your next trip:

1. Where do you want to go and why?

Travel is exciting, and you should do it as much as you can, but knowing why you want to go somewhere is important. It's ok to be a tourist in Tanzania, and a volunteer in your hometown. Ask yourself: Where do I want to go and why?

2. Do you really have the skills to volunteer abroad?

Knowing English doesn't make you an English teacher. Think hard about what you're qualified to do and whether your dollars, spent locally, could actually do more. Ask yourself: Who am I really trying to help and do I have the skills necessary to do so effectively?

3. Is volunteering really the only way to support the community?

There are lots of ways to support a community without taking part in voluntourism initiatives. Consider staying in small, locally-owned hotels/hostels instead of big, foreign-owned resorts, for example. Ask yourself: Is there a way to travel to the place I'd like to go that will support local communities directly without having to "volunteer"?

Support local businesses while traveling

Maybe volunteering isn't for me?

If, after reading this, you're not sure if volunteering is a good fit for you, but you still want to help communities abroad, travel differently, or find a means to meeting another, similar travel goal, there are alternatives.

  • Live with a host family (it's not just for students!).
  • Take a language course.
  • Find an NGO, development organization, Peace Corps volunteer, or other initiative you want to support then visit them or bring donations. (Note: please do not bring "hand outs for the kids" but go through a vetted organization to donate items/money.)
  • Support local businesses, hotels, and shops while you're abroad.
  • Wait. If you're not skilled yet, hold on to the dream for a little later in life.

Do your answers still lead you to volunteering?

This series has been rather harsh on volunteering abroad, but there are absolutely times when having a volunteer in a community abroad is a very positive thing. It's just maybe not as common as the marketing might have you believe.

If you have specialized skills that cannot be found locally and you still want to volunteer, do it. Just volunteer responsibly.

Thoroughly investigate the program provider and the host organization you'll be volunteering with. Whenever possible, work directly with organizations and be honest with yourself about what you will accomplish in the time you are there. Sometimes, it isn't much.

Also remember that training a local is like teaching a man to fish. By passing along your skills you'll have a much greater impact than you would otherwise.

Pippa Biddle

Pippa Biddle is a writer whose work focuses mostly on issues of voluntourism, sustainable development, and travel. She has been featured in The New York Times, The Independent, and Forbes, and is featured in the 2015 documentary "Volunteers Unleashed" (available on Amazon and iTunes). Pippa is on the Board of Onwards, a 501(c)3 organization that fights poverty through transformative adventure experiences.