The case against “Voluntourism”

Cormac Thorpe speaking at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of Cormac Thorpe

People in developing countries are capable — so why don’t our trips treat them like that?

By Cormac Thorpe

Every year, millions of Americans travel to developing countries. With our eyes set on adventure, we search for an “authentic” experience, which usually means spending anywhere from a few hours to a week or two “experiencing” poverty. For those who take issue with poverty tourism, adding in a volunteering component to a visit to an impoverished area seems to make a real impact — rather than walking through slums or donating money, we are actively attempting to help. This new form of travel, called voluntourism, is becoming increasingly popular; a study conducted in 2008 by Tourism Research and Marketing found that 1.6 million people were spending $2 billion in the industry annually, and surveys by the Center for Responsible Travel show that the number of volunteer vacationers doubled in a period of just six years.

The March For Our Lives demonstrated that students across the country are actively trying to change the world, and for well-off New York City teens, volunteering abroad seems to offer the perfect way to make that impact. Now, dozens of companies are sprouting up and expanding their programs to meet the surging demand.

The problem with this trend, however, is that although a well-meaning voluntourism trip may appear beneficial to both the community and the volunteers, doing temporary service work may come at the expense of the very people that should be benefiting. Voluntourism takes jobs from people who need them, objectifies those who are supposedly being helped and is intended to make volunteers feel better about themselves rather than providing anything meaningful to the community.

Building a library in a Ugandan village may seem impactful, but imagine how much quicker it could have been built if local bricklayers were paid to construct it. Noelle Sullivan, an anthropologist studying Tanzanian health facilities, finds that, by participating in surgeries or delivering babies, unqualified volunteers routinely displace Tanzanian health professionals. Rich foreigners aren’t experts on solving the world’s issues, and most of the work voluntourists do could be done much more easily — and with a greater benefit to the local economy — by locals.

Voluntourism trips do fulfill their promise of service, but playing with kids for three hours won’t change anything about their poverty, even though it checks off the empathy box on a trip to Haiti. The people “served” become objects of pity rather than the capable people they are. People in poverty have struggles, but inexperienced and misdirected help isn’t going to “save” them.

In some cases, voluntourism can even harm local communities. A scientific paper written by Linda Richter and Amy Norman shows that, in South Africa, excessive numbers of tourists offering time as temporary caregivers resulted in attachment disorders and other long-term problems among orphans.

Voluntourists see the world as a poverty-stricken place that needs the benevolent help we can offer — that’s at least how I saw it when I volunteered in Costa Rica — and our work reflects that pity. This view is condescending, but on the other side, it feels heartless to say that the world’s poor should be responsible for themselves. After all, we have the resources and the urge to help. What should we do, then?

Volunteering is not a bad thing. Although you would probably have the greatest impact by donating to organizations that are already fighting for issues you care about, global organizations and local NGOs rely on volunteers for much of their work, and volunteering offers a feeling of accomplishment that can drive people to donate more time and money.

If you really want to help, here are three tips:

1) Invest in and volunteer directly with organizations rather than travel companies. Your time and money are valuable, so don’t waste them on travel agencies that will only give a fraction of your money back to the community.

2) Ensure you are qualified and prepared for the work you will be doing and the environment you will be doing it in. Choose something you have experience with, research the place you will be working and treat the work as something you can learn from, not something you can “fix.”

3) Your work should be in tandem with — not supplanting — local efforts. Volunteer with places that employ locals and foster community development with existing resources. Your mindset must focus on collaboration and cultural exchange, not humanitarian aid to the “helpless.”

All of this international aid work sounds compelling, but if you are looking for something more convenient, it is almost always easier — and more impactful — to get involved in issues locally.

Cormac Thorpe lives on the Upper West Side and is a senior at Fieldston. He spent his spring semester at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Washington, DC and has personal experience with volunteering abroad.