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Relaxing days and fun nights beside a clear blue sea? Adventure travel and hiking through the jungles? A language class as you explore a new city? Or maybe you’re looking for a way to see the real community, a way to give back.
Volunteering abroad, or voluntourism, is an ever-growing option for those looking to make use of their vacation time. The ability to see new sites and experience a new culture, while donating time and energy to the local communities attracts about 1.2 million young people every year. From the beaches of Southeast Asia to the mountains of South America to the plains of Sub-Saharan Africa, voluntourism is seeing a substantial increase.
The multi-billion dollar industry is the fastest growing travel trend, after exploding in the past few years alone. Most of the participants of volunteer tourism are in their early to mid-twenties, and more women pack their bags for these trips than do men, and almost all head off with good intentions. But the question remains:
Does voluntourism cause more harm than good?
We’re not here to say you can’t have a fulfilling trip abroad and do some good at the same time, but rather that there are agencies and companies out there who promote an image of doing good, without the real impacts. Short-term volunteer work can be especially guilty of this. When volunteers head off for a few weeks or a month in search of their feel-good project in developing countries, they often provide short-term relief, unskilled labor, or work that isn’t necessarily needed. Coming to an orphanage for two weeks to bond with the kids, play games, and take some nice photos for social media, for example, might not really address the very real issues of why these kids need help.
Short-Term Relief, Unskilled Labor, and the Savior Complex
Short term help may seem like a good thing at face value, but it can fail to see the deeper issues at play. When you head off on your trip to sub-Saharan Africa to hand out food and water to the rural communities and teach the kids in the villages, you’re not addressing why these communities are lacking in resources. The help is fine for the time, but once you leave what happens? Without addressing the larger complexities, is the community really being helped?
Most of these quick one month trips are so focused on ‘volunteer in whatever capacity’ that many volunteers are not trained. A trip to Central America to build the small, rural community’s new school house seems great on paper, but without proper training, the building might have to be rebuilt by the local community. The effects of unskilled workers can be bothersome at best and disastrous at worst for the local community.
Many critics of short-term voluntourism agree the industry is more focused on the volunteer rather than on the local community. Nigerian-American author Teju Cole wrote in 2012 about the idea of the “White Savior Industrial Complex.” Or rather, the idea that people from wealthier nations seek out space for themselves where there may not necessarily be one, to feel good about their help in the world. This can mean creating projects or volunteer placements where the specific project is not exactly what the community needs, or it can mean placing volunteers in jobs that local members of the community could easily perform.
This can harm the local community and international development goals as a whole by ignoring what the community says they need, taking jobs and thus money from locals, and oversimplifying what is really a complex issue and preventing the community from moving forward. It can also paint a false picture of an entire region as poor and in need of outside help. In reality, many members of the community are likely working towards improvement and don’t need help.
Volunteers coming to some orphanages are given the impression they’re there for the kids — to play with them, to help them with their homework, and to bring clothing or toys to the world’s most vulnerable people. What the volunteers don’t know is that none of this actually helps the kids.
A study conducted by UNICEF and the Cambodian government highlighted these realities. From 2005 to 2015, Cambodia’s poverty rate was declining, as well as the number of children orphaned. Yet, during the same time span, the number of orphanages created grew. Why? Volunteer placements in orphanages have gained such high demand that corrupted directors in many placements have turned it into a business.
Kids who are not orphans are kept in the orphanages, under false promises of education or compensation for the family. Many are torn from families, while others are trafficked. The kids are malnourished and dressed up as needy orphans to gain more pity and thus donations. Any donations are then sold, furthering corruption in the country. When foreigners come to see the poor orphans, they’re supporting a dark business breaking up families and contributing to the greed of the orphanage directors.
Where does your money go?
If you’re going through an international agency, be aware of where your money is really going. International agencies that charge upwards of $1,000 will need to pay all their employees and publicity, as well as other needs in the company before going to the local organization. After that, another portion may go towards your accommodation and food. This leaves just a fraction of the price tag listed for the project and the people you’re helping.
A couple of hundred dollars may not seem like much, but perhaps in the country you’re volunteering in, a couple hundred bucks converts to a couple thousand in the local currency. That money could be better put toward funding local organizations or helping with costs of local individuals working toward the same goal.
How to have a fulfilling trip that really helps
None of this is to say you should never volunteer abroad, but rather it’s all about how you go about it. True social justice is more than just handing out food or painting a town’s church. “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Simply seeing the most visible part of the problem and using a quick fix — the “give a man a fish” — is good and does help, but usually nothing profound or permanent. On the other hand, to go in and listen to locals, and see what they need — the “teach a man to fish” — is going to help more long term.
If you want to volunteer abroad, find a local organization and go direct. This may be harder, and definitely requires more independence and pro-activity, but it also has a bigger impact. Local organizations may still charge you for services but it won’t be as much as the partner international agency, and you’ll be left you with more in your pocket to give back to the local community.
Even if you’re only in the town for a few weeks, by partnering directly alongside a local group, you’re ensuring the work you do is needed. When you travel abroad, it’s important to keep in mind that the town or region you’re visiting knows best. Listen to the locals. They know what to do and how to do it, and they understand the problems and the complications. It’s also important to find a volunteer program that is sustainable. There are organizations out there that have measured, long-term impact. For example, teaching English in a public school system alongside local teachers not only helps the students but also helps the teachers to become better English teachers after you’ve left.
When looking through placements, ask yourself: is this a job that could be performed by a member of the community? Are the projects really needed? Are the effects being measured and deemed successful? Is this a job I know I can perform? Is the company or organization transparent about where the money goes? If you’re unsatisfied with any of the answers, find a different trip.