‘Voluntourism’ combines tourism with volunteering and has increasingly become an integral part of many young people’s gap years. Impact’s travel editors debate its positive and negative effects.
Have you got a friend who told you they had a fantastic time in Thailand or India? But when you actually talk to them about it all they seem to know is the international airport and the intercontinental hotel. Did they go to the “tribal areas” and gawp at the natives? Or spend their whole time trailing down Khao San road? Some of us have the desire to do more. ‘Voluntourism’: it is a word that might conjure up negative images of an upper middle-class teenager attempting to teach English to a gaggle of illiterate Kolkata street kids, though while that may be the case in a few experiences, ‘gap yah’ stereotypes have muddied the waters of what can be an enriching and constructive endeavour. From personal experience, when tied to a dedicated, passionate and professional company voluntourism is an extraordinary way to fully immerse yourself in a different culture in a beneficial and positive way.
As much as trailing off into the wild of any country to find the ‘real’ culture sounds highly exciting, in reality many young people – especially those of us who haven’t been able to travel a lot – would find traversing the unbeaten path understandably daunting. Therefore, voluntourism offers us a way to really experience life somewhere, often away from the tourist trail. For instance during my time spent in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, I ate, slept, talked and walked hill tribe life. I lived with Akha children in their boarding house, walked to market with them and visited their villages. But this was no holiday; voluntourism combines the cultural experiences of travelling with long working days and sometimes tough realities. Many of the children I worked with came from very difficult backgrounds. Some were abandoned, some had abusive parents and others were extremely poor. My job involved every part of their daily lives, teaching, playing, caring and helping.
Before I went I was encouraged to gain teaching experience and so volunteered at an inner city school for non-English speaking immigrant children for a term. This was absolutely vital to me giving the most I could and a good voluntourism scheme will always ensure the candidate is well prepared and suited to their job. Similarly, a month was the minimum time any volunteer could work to ensure they made a real positive impact. I know for sure that every person who worked at the orphanage gained hugely from the experience and gave back just as much as they got. Let us not write off voluntourism simply because some companies are not as professional as others. Choose wisely and prepare and it is difficult to see how you could cause more harm than good.
Is Voluntourism just a way to assuage our guilt for living better than others? I would answer yes. Despite its claims of helping people ‘really make a difference’, Voluntourism does not make a positive and sustainable difference. The only real benefit is to the voluntourists themselves. The communities we are so eager to help need to support themselves, but when organisation after organisation tries to sort out their problems for them they cannot do so. Not only that, these organisations contribute their own catalogue of problems. For example, the effect on local businesses: tailors are put out of business by the donation of clothes and local builders are over-looked because a horde of tourists will do the job for free. There is no surer way of crippling a community than to not allow them to sustain themselves.
Teaching projects are one of the most popular types of voluntourism. However, the short amount of time people are there for – coupled with their lack of experience – leads to the children having a very unstable education. Volunteers are not tied to a syllabus and tend to prioritise friendships with their students over their education. Children need stability in their lives. Ask yourself whether you would put up with the same standards for children in our country? Also, horrifyingly, I have heard of a number of teaching projects where local trained teachers have been removed to create a space for voluntourists and their money. Learning about the world is definitely something to appreciate, however not when it comes at the cost of damaging a community. If you want to learn about a country, talk to the people, actually get to know what it’s like for them. Do not kid yourself that by doing a couple of weeks volunteering you have in any way made a difference. Surely the locals can do a better job than you at building, and properly trained teachers can actually teach those kids something? The fact that we have a better quality of life does not mean we are qualified to help people.
Voluntourism, while a wonderful concept, in reality falls rather short of the mark. The damaging effect on communities, which are plagued with external groups pledging to help every aspect of their lives and the under-organisation of many of the projects culminate in a disastrous situation where the only benefit seems to be to the voluntourists themselves. While I think Voluntourism has a bit of potential, certainly right now, it just ends up being self-indulgent and really rather patronising.