Opinion:The promises and pitfalls of volunteering holidays

Volunteer tourists can get involved in building projects or working in orphanages

Volunteering is the new backpacking”. Or so I was told by a volunteer co-ordinator in Fiji recently. People don’t want to simply travel anymore, they want to ‘give back’ and ‘help out’.

This demand has led to a thriving market in so–called ‘voluntourism’, aimed at travellers who want to express an altruistic streak while they take a break. Glossy ads encourage travellers to spend some of their holiday in Cambodia or Fiji volunteering in an orphanage or building a school. Stories of volunteer work pop up regularly in news features highlighting the work done by retirees in the Philippines or students in Samoa.

International voluntourism is a growing market, and one that is imbued with a sense of good, of purpose, of giving back. In a world that seems increasingly chaotic and violent, the rise of volunteering shines a ray of light, promising connection and hope. By giving time to serve a needy community, the traveller is able to contribute to the creation of a better world.

Not only that, there are also benefits for the volunteer. Even a short stint of volunteering looks great on a CV, giving a clear advantage in a difficult job market. It builds intercultural skills and provides the volunteer with an experience which not only increases their international understanding, it can, as many returned volunteers attest, literally change the lives of volunteers.

But there is a darker side. The demand for voluntourism experiences has led to a competitive market, and not all volunteer experiences are created equal. There are worrying reports of orphanages created purely for volunteer tourists (a recent UNICEF report noted that around 75 per cent of children in Cambodian orphanages have living parents), and of unscrupulous operators who promise much and deliver little.

The internet abounds with stories of ethically dubious activities undertaken by volunteers, from shoddy buildings built by unskilled volunteers, to medical malpractice.

Some consider volunteer tourism to be an essentially narcissistic practice, which is more about the image of the volunteer than about any sense of giving back. Voluntourism has – appropriately – been the subject of considerable criticism by development professionals and academics. So what are the promises and pitfalls, and how should you respond to the call to volunteer?

Making a difference

Many agencies attract volunteers with the call to ‘make a difference’ in the lives of the disadvantaged. In reality a week, or even a month or two, is not enough time to make any significant and meaningful long-term change, and the collective impact of many volunteers over a long period of time may harm local initiatives. For example, although a short-term medical team may be able to make some difference in the lives of a few individuals by treating infections and injuries, this is a band aid effect. This may seem to be better than doing nothing at all, but failing to address the root causes of disease in poverty and inequality means people will continue to suffer after the volunteer has left, particularly if trust in local health care providers has been undermined.

If you want to make a difference, consider longer-term volunteering, or look for organisations which focus on mutual learning and understanding, and fostering self-sufficiency and empowerment rather than promising that individuals can make a difference in just a couple of weeks.

Doing good

Voluntourists are usually praised for the good they do in the world. However there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some voluntourism experiences are actually harmful to communities and place volunteers in unethical situations.

Child advocates warn of the risks to vulnerable children from an endless parade of volunteers, while medical professionals have raised concern about inappropriate care given by short-term medical teams unfamiliar with local needs and conditions. Development workers note the way in which voluntourism can create dependency and jealousy, and can harm local economies, particularly where volunteers undertake work which could be done by locals.

Giving back

Many voluntourists are motivated by a desire to give something back to the less fortunate. Ironically however, returned volunteers are often more likely to highlight their own gains from the experience and to acknowledge their inability to contribute much to host communities. Indeed many in the voluntourism industry acknowledge that most benefit accrues to the volunteer, not the recipient and host communities.

The desire to give back is also linked to what some term the Western ‘savior complex’  – the idea Westerners can save the poor of the world.  This idea, communicated through voluntourism marketing and the social media snaps of white voluntourists hugging poor brown children, reinforces stereotypes and the unequal power relationship between the volunteer and those they seek to help.

Should you feel the desire to give back, be realistic. Understand that it is (and should be) a two-way relationship, and think about how your actions are influenced by and might contribute to harmful stereotypes.

It needs to be stressed that voluntourism is not inherently bad, and that the desire to volunteer is laudable. However the decision to volunteer needs to be carefully thought through.

So should you (or your child or parent) volunteer while on holiday overseas? The truth is, it’s complicated. In general, longer volunteering is better, so do your homework first – find out about the organization, the project, the country and community before going, and make learning and understanding the key aim of your experience.

Dr Sharon McLennan is a Postdoctoral Fellow in development studies at Massey University’s School of People, Environment and Planning. She has a long-standing interest in researching international volunteering and volunteer tourism.


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