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Wisdom & Insight
"VolunTourism: 'A Touch Of Gray'"
Katie from Volunteer Travel Logue explores the downside of voluntourism as well as the value of volunteer trips and finds shades of gray, rather than black and white.
The benefits of voluntourism are widely acknowledged – but the potential downsides get much less “airtime”. Could voluntourism do more harm than good? Ultimately, I think not, but a few “downsides” – and the role of voluntourism in the larger picture of social change - merit serious consideration.
- It can be hard to envision how voluntourism can have negative consequences – but in fact “anything” is not always better than “nothing” in the field of aid, at least not when you look at the bigger picture. A recent Volunteer Travel Logue guest piece outlined a scenario where voluntourists pay to come for a short period, are allowed to disrupt children’s school attendance to do their volunteering, and do work that could have provided temporary employment to a local. How often this exact scenario happens is debatable, but it is one example of how action taken in the name of goodwill can have negative consequences – and it is important to realize that this can happen.
- Voluntourism, even when it does no harm, is not the solution to the world’s woes, and should be presented in a realistic light by providers and acknowledged as such by others. Many very real social problems have roots running deeper than lack of a particular skill or an able-bodied western volunteer. Also important is wider recognition that the existence of volunteer projects alone is not a sufficient response to serious problems such as poverty, illiteracy or the consequences of natural disasters. But similarly, the lack of efficacy of volunteer vacations in addressing these issues is also not an indication that changes can’t be made: it’s an indication that the large scale change doesn’t happen directly due to a two-week volunteer vacation.
- Critics assert that some organizations accept voluntourists more because they need the funds this generates than because they need the volunteers themselves… while for the volunteer, this is something worth being aware of, as for whether this should be seen as a problem caused by voluntourism, I think the topic deserves more detailed consideration (see my thoughts at the Volunteer Travel Logue).
Given all these downsides – is there anything good about voluntourism?
Absolutely – and the benefits of voluntourism are fairly widely understood, so while I can mention that volunteers make personal connections with locals in the host community, learn how they address the problems they face, and become more educated about the issue overall… I don’t have a great deal of new light to shed on these benefits.
I’ll turn, instead, to how I see voluntourism in the larger picture; considering this larger picture, I think the downsides often cited don’t provide the condemnation of voluntourism they might appear to at first glance.
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- To start with, the role voluntourism plays in social change is complex. Are mission trips different in an important way from volunteer vacations? Is a profit-making company that provides financial support to a local partner “better than” a non-profit organizing its own projects? What about a grassroots organization that has a small monthly fee for short-term volunteers? I think most of us can agree that some projects are clearly ineffective, or have obviously negative consequences, but circumstances vary. Speaking too categorically here is misleading.
- Some look at voluntourism as unsustainable: when the volunteers leave, the work stops. But whether work is sustainable or even effective at all is a question for aid work in general, and is hardly limited to short-term volunteers. Many with a professional interest and advanced qualifications in the field of development meaningfully apply that question to the work of well-respected international organizations, and established longer-term volunteer programs. Sustainable “solutions” (as opposed to sustainable projects) are important, but there are a number of levels at which impact can be assessed and interpreted. I don’t agree that voluntourism merits the harshest criticism on this level.
- Sometimes a sustainable solution doesn’t incorporate foreign volunteers at all, and as such, too much of a focus on voluntourism in the overall picture of social change misses the point. Sure, it plays some role, but I’m more inclined to believe that role is of the “changing minds” - rather than the “volunteer output” – variety. And changing minds CAN influence that larger picture.
- Finally, it’s my experience that those who think critically about these issues tend to be people who have actually been involved in volunteering somehow, and, to be frank, not those who stay home and write checks. Money is helpful, but people’s overall knowledge and critical thinking about this kind of work is integral to getting that money to where it can do good. And sometimes a solution isn’t about money at all.
In short, I believe that while volunteer projects do not provide easy solutions to world problems, their existence gives participants the opportunity to learn and change their minds. For this reason, getting involved is exponentially more valuable than staying at home.
Join me at Volunteer Travel Logue to explore this and other topics further.
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