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How “volun-tourists” can do more harm than good in developing communities

By Jennifer Khil, September 25 2018 —

I’ve been on two “volunteer-abroad” trips over the course of my undergraduate career and now serve as president of a volunteer-abroad club on campus.

You know, one of those clubs whose executives yell at you for a solid minute before your 8 a.m. introductory biology class about an opportunity to make a difference.

In an alarming proportion of cases, “volun-tourism” — travelling abroad with the intention of providing assistance to a worthy cause — can do more harm than good. However, you can still work towards ensuring that the several-thousand-dollar trip you’re Googling will be “worth it” — for the international community in need, not just for you.


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Volun-tourism is quickly gaining traction. Wilson Quarterly reports that it’s now a multi-billion-dollar industry. Booking a trip through a volunteer-abroad program can be cheaper than travelling on your own. For a lot of students, it seems like killing two birds with one stone. You get to travel the world while also gaining relevant experience to stick on almost any professional school application. Volun-tourism is a guilt-free way to enjoy your time, because you’re making a difference. Right?

Unfortunately, the positive impacts of many short-term volunteering trips don’t last. When they do, they’re often negligible. The temporary measures that shorter trips tend to promote — like building a community well or handing out bracelets at an orphanage — do nothing to target the enduring and multifaceted societal issues that many developing states face. It’s like sticking a succession of week-long Band-Aids on a gaping wound, which likely requires antibiotics and long-term, sustained care from a team of committed professionals to heal properly.

Most of us aren’t foreign aid professionals and never will be, but still want to help. It’s easy to think, “Something is better than nothing,” but heartbreakingly, short-term volunteering trips can be harmful as well as fruitless.

Children struggling with abandonment issues often shoulder the brunt of the harm caused by volun-tourism. Most of us seek to bond emotionally with the children we work with — after all, we want our experience to be “meaningful” — but those same children are left to bond with a new volunteer every week, after the previous ones have hopped on their plane back home, eventually replacing their Ghana Facebook album with a Thailand one.

Children are not photo-ops. Their lives in their home countries continue on after that one endearing moment captured in your Facebook photo. I am the first to admit that I have been guilty of this before.

Volun-tourism can also contribute to deeper and more sinister problems within a community. For example, the United Nations Children’s Fund has spoken out repeatedly against the exploitative nature of “orphan tourism.” So-called ‘orphanages’ can be run by traffickers who capitalize on pulling on the heartstrings of well-intentioned foreigners, inviting them to donate money or pay to come “save the orphans” themselves — who, many times, have actually been forcibly taken away from their very much living parents.

The Guardian describes some orphanages in Cambodia as a “booming business trading on guilt”. Responsibletravel.com, an umbrella group for responsible and effective tourism and international aid, has removed all orphanage volunteering trips from their site. Sarah Bareham, one of their marketing assistants, told The Telegraph that the number of orphanages in Bali has doubled in the last 20 years, alongside a boom in tourism. This suggests that volunteers are actually fuelling the demand. Furthermore, an alarming UN report from West Africa highlights that over 90 per cent of children in orphanages in Ghana are not actually orphans, and that 140 of 148 orphanages in the country operate without a license. The report underlines the need to protect children from “orphan dealers.”

According to Bareham, almost all orphanages in Cambodia are funded by overseas donors. Many even train children to perform and attract donors because they rely on volun-tourism for income. Three-quarters of these children are not orphans. Siem Reap, a Cambodian town with a population of only 100,000, now has 35 orphanages.


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In addition to exploitation, volun-tourism can promote a cycle of dependence in vulnerable communities that come to rely on donations. Such communities may become less inclined toward self-sustainability, impeding much-needed growth. Like a serious chronic illness requires a proper diagnosis and long-term care, the only way to prevent future problems is through committed societal development. That means work should be done by accountable organizations who are committed to long-term solutions.

If the objective of a volunteering trip is to help the community, volun-tourism is likely to be an immense waste of resources and effort. Consider whether the cost of your trip — the flight, your accommodations, time off work — could be better put toward paying the salary of a local worker who could do your job better than you are able to. Would the service you are offering be possible without you there? It’s much more efficient and beneficial in the long-term to pay skilled local construction workers to build a well, rather than relying on a group of likely unskilled volunteers whose work may not hold up properly over time. A lack of proper skill also poses an ethical question for medical volunteers, who are often undergraduate students, but are sometimes allowed to “practise” beyond the scope of their training in a developing country, when they would not legally be allowed to do so in their own.

Nilufer Hasanova is a University of Calgary nursing graduate who authored the published paper Voluntourism: who are we really helping? In an interview with the Gauntlet, she draws attention to the risks associated with medical volunteering trips. These trips are often presented to undergraduate students with medical school aspirations.

“Most people that go on medical aid trips aren’t qualified and can put lives at risk that way. Often, companies promise students a medical experience and patients in other countries are affected just so that somebody from here can boost their CV,” Hasanova says. “Is someone’s life really that less important?”


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The attitude of volun-tourism can also simply be offensive. Literature is spilling over with discussions about the Western-saviour complex. It boils down to this — it’s problematic for Westerners to assert their perceived superiority by swooping in to “rescue” a developing country. And when people only visit the most impoverished regions of a country, they are not experiencing anything beyond its helpless stereotype. It is inaccurate to assume that the rest of the state is like the area you’re volunteering in. Giving into this belief only feeds into a Western superiority complex.

“At the end of the day, people may need support, but they don’t need saving,” Hasanova says. “Involving the community you want to help in decision-making is key to creating sustainable solutions. These opportunities should change one’s view of the world — and not just their Facebook profile picture. Those living in developing countries are people. We all share this earth and need to respect one another.”

Instead, consider donating money instead of time. You can invest long-term into a population or region by volunteering with or financially supporting legitimate organizations. Billions of dollars are spent annually on volun-touring. That money could be repurposed and invested directly into communities themselves.

I recognize that donating money doesn’t offer the same returns to travellers, such as the first-hand experiences gained or the items we get to add on our resumés. And it’s important to acknowledge that international volunteering trips are not universally problematic. When done right, they can benefit both their communities and volunteers, while promoting diversity in cultural experiences and awareness.


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Providing the opportunity for people, especially students, to travel abroad and work towards a cause they are passionate about goes a long way in spreading and maintaining awareness of and interest in, international issues. It also allows us to humbly expand our repertoire of cultural exposure and experiences. Both are important parts of living effectively in a globalized world.

If you are still considering embarking on a volunteer-abroad trip, be sure to research your organization. Reputable organizations should publish annual impact reports and financial statements. Their mission statement and values should emphasize the needs of communities, not the experiences of volunteers. Organizations should work with, employ and support local staff and local partner organizations — especially since working with these locals is required to be able to fully understand what the community actually needs.

Organizations should not take employment away from the local community, such as by giving work to unskilled “construction” volunteers when many locals would benefit greatly from such an opportunity.

Sarah Skett, a postdoctoral research fellow in Sustainability Studies at the U of C, studied volun-tourism during her PhD. She advises potential volunteers to look for organizations that have strong local leadership in addition to employing local workers, and if possible, to speak with former volunteers about their experiences in a specific program.

“Give the time to research what kind of volunteer work it is that you want to do,” Skett says. “And spend the time to learn about the country’s history and current situation before you arrive.”

Volunteers should be trained properly — on their task and on the community’s culture — and always be supervised by a professional, never practising outside of the scope of their skill. An aid trip is not the time to “play doctor” — students should recognize that their training is very limited and that the people in these countries deserve the highest standard of medical care that they can get.

Organizations that offer accommodation in local homestays also spend less money on volunteer comfort, which shouldn’t be a top priority for trips focused on service. The money spent on homestay accommodation also directly supports the local families who host you. Living in a homestay is a great way to experience the culture of a community, but keep in mind that the taste of the country you’re getting is still only a very small part of their nation and identity.

“The most important thing is you are not going there to help,” Skett says. “You are going there to learn, collaborate and make connections. When we change our attitudes as to why we’re volunteering, there is the potential for positive outcomes and life-long learning and friendships.”

If you’re volunteering abroad, keep the correct priorities in mind — what will benefit the community — and always ask how your actions are contributing to a long-term positive impact. Keep in mind the beautiful parts of any culture and community you may be a visitor in, and know that though you may be there to work with them towards a solution, you are their guest and not their saviour.


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