Nearly every traveler has stumbled across at least one instance of heartbreaking poverty while on vacation; a crumbling school, an emaciated stray dog, a child with a disability begging on the street. It’s only human to want to help alleviate such problems — and the growing voluntourism industry promises travelers a chance to do just that.
Also known as volunteer vacations, voluntourism typically involves a short-term commitment to service as part of a trip that also includes sightseeing or other tourism activities. For the many travellers who don’t have time to devote to longer-term volunteer opportunities, voluntourism offers the chance to make a difference in smaller ways.
Unfortunately, there’s a growing body of evidence that many voluntourism trips don’t actually make much positive impact — and might even cause harm.
The main purpose of a voluntourism trip seems obvious: to help the community you’re visiting. But if you’re only volunteering for a few days, it’s important not to overestimate how much of a difference you can realistically make.
Josh Powell, Director of Innovation at Development Gateway, says that volunteers with specialized skills tend to make the most impact.
Powell says, “Most of the effective groups that I know of help to match individuals with scarce skills, not easily found in the local communities (engineering, medicine, information technology), with acute needs locally. Think Doctors Without Borders, Engineers Without Borders, etc. If you have an advanced technical skill set, consider finding organizations that function in this way.”
"If you are bringing nothing but good intentions,” adds Powell, "just be aware that the greatest contribution you are making to the local community is the money that you spend.”
Volunteering gives you a chance to learn about a place and interact with the locals in a way that simply lying on a beach does not — and it can be fun too!
Your encounters might even change your understanding of the world. Someone who’s been impacted by a voluntourism experience might go home and take further action — including advocating for political change or even volunteering in a community closer to home. In this way a voluntourism experience can have ripple effects for years to come.
That said, many well-meaning travellers show up, volunteer for a few days and go home convinced that they’ve made a difference in the world. However, their presence may sometimes hurt, not help the community they’re trying to serve. One such volunteer, Pippa Biddle, shares the following anecdote from a trip to Tanzania:
“Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students, were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. … Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there.”
Powell argues that unless you have skills that fit the specific needs of a community, making a donation to an effective grassroots organization will likely bring more benefit than your presence.
Powell also notes that any vacation you take can benefit the local economy, even if you’re not volunteering. “Spend money!” he says. “It may not give the ‘warm fuzzy feeling’ that you might get from driving some nails or teaching English, but think of what you would prefer in their circumstances. Support local artisans, kids who ‘guard’ your vehicle while it’s parked, maids in your hotel room, etc.
“And don’t negotiate too aggressively. That 20 percent you are negotiating off your taxi fare or a souvenir for your niece is one third of a latte to you, but may be a sizable portion of net wages for the person across from you. There is nothing wrong with haggling, but fully ‘winning’ the negotiation is an often hollow victory.”
For the most economic benefit, follow the principles of socially responsible travel, including staying in locally owned hotels, eating at locally owned restaurants and buying directly from local artisans and shops.
Adapted from 'Voluntourism: Does It Really Help?’ by Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor, Smarter Travel