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The problem with Voluntourism


The problem with Voluntourism by Katie Lawrence

In October myself and two other POLIS students attended a conference to help us answer some questions about the so-called volunteering that many British students travel overseas to part take in. I had so many questions; questions that I felt needed exploring. I was keen to learn more about the 'ethicalness' of volunteering abroad, having asked the question to myself: is international volunteering, in the generic sense that we think of it, the most effective way to deliver aid? Are volunteers today getting caught up in it being 'the thing to do' rather than delivering the most effective aid? Is it just a fashionable tourist statement or does it deliver the benefits that are assumed? So when the opportunity arose to go to a conference about ‘Voluntourism’ I grabbed it with both hands! So at 5.30am we set off for the train from Leeds to London!

Voluntourism is the practice whereby many companies label their packages to be ‘volunteering’. However, this volunteering is often more about the experience that we – as volunteers – have, than truly helping communities. The problems with voluntourism are that it creates reliance by communities on the voluntourism trade. 87 per cent of international volunteers are white so you could say that it instils postcolonial values. In addition to this, it certainly isn’t the most effective way to help these communities in many cases. Many ‘volunteering’ companies are deceitful so it is important that you question where your money is going and not simply look at the best experience for you. You must question “am I going for the experience for me or am I going to help others”?

On to the day itself, there were a number of speakers telling their experiences of voluntourism. Pippa raised some important questions about confidentiality. When we go abroad we don’t hesitate to take photographs and upload them to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or whatever other social media and blogging sites we use. However, isn’t this a breach of privacy when most of those we upload photographs of haven’t given their permission, nor do they have access to a computer to view the images? Pippa explained how she had volunteered at a centre for helping young people with HIV/AIDS and some of those volunteering had uploaded photographs. However, some of the patients were yet to publically announce that they had the disease and so their friends and family found out via the internet. This made me think three things. First, would it be odd if a stranger uploaded a photograph of me to their Facebook? Second, are the photographs being uploaded to inform and persuade others to get involved in the great work that you are involved in? Third, are the photographs being uploaded to show off what a great experience they have had?

Although there were a number of speakers, another one that I found particularly captivating was a speech about community-based tourism. This is whereby the volunteer would go and live in with a family and help at a grassroots level within the community. This can potentially benefit the communities on a number of levels. First of all, it does not necessitate new or separate infrastructure that would set up a permanent reliance on tourists. Also, it would give the tourist a true taste of local culture. Most importantly though, it could empower the local community if it raised their standards of living (through the funding by the tourists), allowing them to embrace and share their cultural entity and traditions, take ownership of their local environments and make strong ties with their visitors.

Peter Bishop gave another captivating talk. He looks at voluntourism in terms of taking a gap year or summer off for international volunteering and the standards for doing so. He talked about the fact that we need to ask: are the volunteers truly giving something back? Would a community-based stay, as I talked about before, be better? Are you using an ethical tour operator? He gave key criteria to the volunteering. He made four clear points about what the companies we volunteer with should be doing:

  1. There should be a specific acknowledgement of community wellbeing
  2. There should be a support network that involves and takes care of the local community
  3. It should protect local culture
  4. It should look at the social and environmental cost e.g. what is the cost to local prosperity?
  5. Environment - How sustainable is the project?
  6. Visitor experience - Is it a worthy thing to do?

He further talked about the fact that it is voluntourists who need to change the industry. A truly effective and worthwhile project would not be designed to make those volunteering happy. The marketing by many gap year companies and such like looks as though the experience should make you happy and often sets this as the first goal to the experience. This should not be the case though. The first thing that you should question is where is my money going? How do I know that the company is engaging in the best practice it can? How do I know that the company is complying with international standards? What are international standards?

The lesson that I have learned from this conference has been clear. Research more clearly what you are paying for. There are ethical ways to volunteer out there you just have to look for them. Don’t look for the best experience for you, else you may be better going on a holiday. Think about your choices, they could have implications for others.