Voluntourism: Overseas volunteer trips often hurt more than they help

Daniela Papi has a great post on the many problems with “voluntourism,” or traveling to a foreign country to do volunteer work. She points out that most volunteers don’t know much about the local culture, you don’t speak the language and don’t have relevant skills, and this makes it very difficult to find work that’s useful. Given these constraints, it’s entirely possible that the work you’re doing overseas (for example, painting or building houses) is displacing local labor, and that the money you’re spending can be put to much better use.
“I really did travel with a tour company that decided to allow us to paint the school that was on their bike route. We painted it poorly, I must say, as we rushed to complete it in one day (and most of us felt too tired to put in a big effort). We probably spent $200 on paint (25% of which we dropped on the floor). The project was in rural Thailand, and $200 could have probably bought a lot of educational resources, hired a few teachers for a month, or done a list of other things which would have added more educational value than our patchy blue paint job. If they insisted on painting, if they had instead funded $3000 towards a locally identified educational need (for example, a weekly life-skills training course), plus bought $200 worth of paint, at least then our combined efforts would have been more than just the blue paint on the floor.”
Voluntourism creates an unhealthy culture:
“As Saundra has told us over and over again and as I have learned through seeing the negative effects of an unbridled tourism culture of giving things away “to the poor people”, giving things to people is never going to solve their problems. Instead, it can destroy local markets, create community jealousies, and create a culture of dependency.”
Tour companies don’t monitor projects effectively:
“A tour company in India allowed tourists to hand out goats to families on their tours. In the middle of the tour, a person from a nearby village came and told the director that the man who had been put in charge of choosing which poor families should get the goats had been charging the families for the goats for years. The tour company had been making their English speaking tour guide rich, were not helping “the poorest of the poor” that they claimed to be, and had furthered corruption and mistrust in the village.”
“There are many orphanages in Cambodia which take volunteers to teach English. Some come for a few weeks, others for a few days. When they leave, the classes have no teacher, there is no curriculum to ensure that the students aren’t learning “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” every day, and the school is not better able to solve its own problems in the future because of the volunteer’s visit. If skilled teachers had spent time teaching English teachers English, they would have improved the system at least slightly, but sadly, everyone just wants to pet the cute kids.” Last but not least, the tours “foster moral imperialism” among volunteers:
This one is the biggest problem I think, but the least talked about. We assume, because we come from wealthier places with better education systems, that we can come into any new place without knowing much about the culture or the people, and we can fix things. We can’t! THEY, the people who live there and know the place well, can. Our job in the development world can and should be to support them in doing so. So, we can’t assume we can come do it for them and “save the babies” by visiting an orphanage for a few hours on our trip to India. And we sure shouldn’t think that our time is oh so valuable that we should fundraise money to pay for OUR flights to go paint a school poorly. My job, in running a tour operation, is to educate travelers on at least these two points: improvements take time, and the people we are visiting have just as much—if not more—to teach us as we have to teach them.
The bottom line is that “voluntourists” are more interested in showing that they care than in actually helping make a difference. This is one reason why I could never be a college admissions officer; I would reject outright any student that wrote about this sort of work in glowing terms (and I know many do). I was pretty careful in vetting organizations at the beginning of the trip, and I know that the organization I’m working for does things the right way. I don’t have any illusions about the value of the work I’m doing. I tend to think of the main point of my trip as spending time traveling, learning about a different culture and trying to learn several specific skills. It became clear very quickly that I don’t know much about the culture, and I definitely don’t know enough Hindi to get by. I do have some useful skills; I’ve been spending more than my fair share of time doing things for the NGO that I am good at, in particular redesigning their website to attract more money in donations (the revenue from which, when complete, will far exceed the cost of the plane flight), and writing grant proposals in English. Traveling to a foreign country is an excellent experience and I recommend it, if you or your parents have the means. The longer you can stay the better, but even if you can only go for one week, don’t pay for one of these trips though. Aim for one of the smaller cities, then a month before you leave, buy a phrasebook and practice. Once you get there, rent a bike/car and get out into the countryside, eat the local food and try your best to make conversation.

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