Voluntourism and its controversy

Voluntourism, known also as volunteer tourism is a combination of holiday and volunteer work. Indeed, it sounds like a positive movement, especially in the countries of the Global South where needs are big and sometimes even small efforts from a foreigner can make a difference. Unfortunately, going on volunteer travel does not always mean doing good – regardless of the best intentions.

Volunteer tourism has its roots in 1970s. The first volunteer travel opportunities were mostly organized by long-standing international development assistance organizations. In 1990s, due to the growth of interest in this field, the tourist industry expanded the market by offering volunteer travels – run not by charity organizations, but simply by tour operators. As great as it sounds to combine making a positive change while still getting a tourist experience, the first doubt arises – can tour operators provide a high quality and sustainable development program?

Due to the great demand on volunteer trips, the quality of these programs (both organized by tour agencies and international organizations) declined and corruption is finding its way to get to altruistic tourists. What is significant is that many international organizations providing volunteer placements often focus more on the demands of volunteers and their expectations than on the effects of their work – volunteer becomes more of a ‘client’ than an individual supporting certain cause. Nowadays the big paradox with voluntourism is that often the volunteer is not meeting the demands of less-fortunate, but it’s the less-fortunate meeting the demands and expectations of the volunteer. This leads to even bigger complications like: growing number of orphanages in the tourist areas, disruption of local economics or even preventing local workers from getting jobs.

What’s very significant ‘voluntourism’ is a term rarely used by volunteer travel providers who prefer to use terms like ‘volunteer projects overseas’ or ‘volunteer abroad programs’. Why is that? Nowadays the term ‘tourist’ is being associated more with commercial all-inclusive tours than an ultruistic need of discovering different cultures. Moreover, volunteer travel providers might avoid this term because this branch of tourism was hit by a wave of criticism and most of the authors of critical rewiews use a term ‘voluntourism’ instead of ‘volunteering abroad’. To check it, simply google ‘voluntourism’ and ‘volunteer abroad’, and compare the results!

Voluntourism is a very complex subject. With the variety of organizations, there is a variety of qualities – not only of international organizations, but also of local ones. All those organizations have different expectations from volunteers and offer different quality programs.

On the other side, there are volunteers with a big range of expectations, intentions and experiences. Many organizations working with volunteers claim that some of them have very different attitudes towards the work. Some volunteers tend to be more concerned about gaining a life-changing experience and doing everything “their way” instead of following directions. At the same time they are totally unaware of the harm they can cause. This is why finding both skilled volunteers, sustainable programs and matching them together is not an easy thing.

Some people might say that one can never know whether their efforts and money will be used in the right way and it’s better to try to help somebody, than nobody. As true as it seems, many researches show, that not sustainable programs can not only be useless, but even harmful. The best example is teaching foreign languages in an orphanage for a short period of time. Two or three weeks is not enough to teach much, because it already takes few days to adapt, learn the children’s names and see what is the level of their language knowledge. But two or three weeks is already enough to get en emotional bond with children who end up being abandoned again and suffering from attachment disorders.

Despite all the controversy about volunteer travel, this field has a lot of great potential. What it seems to need is rethinking and critical engagement. It simply cannot make an illusion, that developmental work is easy and that good intention and enthusiasm is enough to “make a difference”. Before people decide to serve abroad, they need to be aware of how to do it effectively, have a healthy attitude towards the local problems and be able to choose a right organization providing sustainable projects, matching their skills. Otherwise it can turn out that doing something can be worse than nothing.