Voluntourism — traveling to engage in voluntary work — has become popular among global travelers looking to make a positive impact on the world. It’s not difficult to understand why, either. From poverty and education to infrastructure and conservation, it seems that there are endless opportunities to ‘help’ local communities.
But does this type of volunteer work really help, or does it do more harm than good?
Weighing the Pros and Cons
For those doing the traveling and volunteering, voluntourism seems great. It allows them to gain insight into another culture — another way of life — and it fulfils that innate desire most people have to make a difference in the lives of others. Of course, it’s not always fun and games; volunteering abroad can be emotionally challenging and physical labor can be difficult and tiring. Most travelers who engage in voluntourism, though, say it’s an experience to remember.
It’s equally as important, if not more so, to look at the impact voluntourism has on the community receiving the help. And when you consider the nuances and complexities that are involved, it becomes clear that voluntourism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it can be pretty harmful.
One of the key issues with voluntourism is the fact that it generally takes work away from the local community. Rather than locals supplying the materials and doing the jobs, volunteers from abroad do them. This can have a substantial negative impact on local employment and markets. It also means that in many instances, the projects being tackled are proposed and developed by the volunteer organization(s) rather than members of the community. The result is projects that either aren’t useful, or aren’t priorities for the community. This type of situation can exacerbate the divide between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ communities, as it highlights differences and reinforces the mistaken idea of ‘we know what is best for you.’
Orphanage volunteering is a category unto itself — one that’s filled with ethical concerns. While it might make for some feel good moments and cute Instagram shots, the reality is that foreigners paying orphanages or voluntourism operators to spend time with these kids creates a market for orphans. In too many cases, the kids at the orphanages are not truly orphans and are essentially being ‘rented’ from their parents to play a role. Research also shows that having voluntourists come and go every couple weeks can be emotionally harmful to the kids, who need stable, long-term relationships with their caregivers.
So, if you want to make your travel count, what can you do?
3 Ways to Make a Positive Impact While Traveling Abroad
This is not to say that all volunteer initiatives abroad are bad or harmful to the local communities — only that it’s incredibly important to do your research and fully understand the impact you’ll be making.
- Make choices that support the communities you visit
If you want to truly make a difference in the community, invest in the local economy by staying in locally-owned accommodations, eating a locally-owned restaurants, and opting for activities and tours led by people who actually live in the community. In addition to supporting their livelihoods, you’ll end up with a more authentic experience. After all, who knows a place better than the people who live there?
- Check out the local volunteer opportunities
Most communities are happy to have volunteers who want to get involved. Ask around about opportunities, or check out a local school to see if they have a volunteer program in place. If there’s a community event coming up, find out who the coordinator is and see if there’s some way you can be of service to them.
- Get out of the tourist centers
While tourist centers might have the big attractions and all the conveniences of home, they’re also where you’re most likely to find international hotels, chain restaurants, and shops catering to, well, tourists. Spending your time outside of these centers will allow you to get a feel for what the place you’re visiting is really like — and it will help ensure that the money you spend stays in the country.
If you’re still interested in volunteering abroad with an organization, that’s okay — but be sure to ask some key questions: Are the projects needed, and did the community request them? Are you a charity or a for-profit company? Can I see statements to show where the money actually goes? It can be difficult to weed out the organizations that are really doing great work, but the way they answer these questions should give you a good start.