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Why You Shouldn't Participate in Voluntourism

by Richard Stupart Aug 22, 2011
Before you run off to do good, it’s worth stopping to consider some ethical basics.

NOBODY DECIDES to travel halfway around the world to spend weeks or months of their life undermining a local community. But voluntourism – like that famous quote about the paving on the road to hell – often comes close. The debate about the practice, like most things in life, is far more ethically nuanced than many organisations facilitating such experiences often let on.

Voluntourism has gained an appeal amongst travelers with a wide range of motivations, time, and skills, from volunteers in organised groups such as the Kiva Fellows to handfuls of backpackers stopping off for a week in Siem Reap. The appeal of wanting to get involved in ‘making things better’ for local groups, orphanages, schools or other projects is the glue that holds many different strains of voluntourism together. And the ground on which fierce debates have raged for a few years already on whether particular flavours of voluntourism are helpful, ethically bankrupt, or simply benign.

If you are intending to do some good on your next journey abroad, you have a responsibility to be aware of some of the practical and ethical questions that you are likely to confront on the way. Although, in the end, how and where you decide to volunteer is ultimately going to be up to you, if you have some degree of dedication to the idea of doing good (you are volunteering after all), then these questions matter.

Let’s start from the top. I want to volunteer at an orphanage…
If your prospective NGO/local partner tells you about going to an orphanage and hugging/playing/otherwise interacting with local children, walk away. Orphanage love programs, while fantastic for pulling at the heart strings of travelers, positively overflow with ethical and practical problems.

In the first instance – and particularly in areas of extreme poverty – foreigners paying money either to operators or to orphanages directly for the privilege of interacting actually serves to create a market for orphans. Yes, that’s right. It can incentivize places to find orphans purely for the purpose of leeching dollars from gullible folk who feel they are helping to fix the facilities/feed the children/do general good.

Orphanage love programs, while fantastic for pulling at the heart strings of travelers, positively overflow with ethical and practical problems.

By way of example, Siem Reap in Cambodia was briefly exposed not too long ago for having orphanages that were actually full of children with real parents. It was cost effective for orphanage-pimps to rent them off their parents for the day so that they could play or perform for gullible tourists for a healthy profit in donations. A quick google search for ‘siem riep orphanage volunteer’ on Google suggests that this sordid market remains well-supplied with the cash of well-intentioned travelers.

Research on fraudulent orphanages (yes, it’s enough of a problem to be researched) suggests that pretty much anywhere that appears to have a proliferation of orphanages should be treated with more than a little suspicion. After the tsunami in Aceh, for example, only 60 in 6,000 – 10,000 minors was found to be truly orphaned (in the sense that they had no close family to foster them and were genuinely in need of institutional care).

None of this is to say that orphans don’t exist, or are rarer than unicorns. It does mean that when arriving in a tourist hotspot and being offered the chance to ‘assist’ at one of a handful (or more) of orphanages, you should be a little cynical.

“OK”, you might ask, “but if an orphanage was legitimate, surely helping out there would be a good idea?”

Sadly, and again according to research, the answer is no. It is emphatically no. And it is ‘no’ for at least two very good reasons.

Firstly, for children growing up in an institutionalized, orphanage-type setting, it is of the utmost importance that children be able to develop a stable, long term attachment to their caregivers. Allowing troops of travelers to come in and hug, play and laugh with the kids every few weeks has precisely the opposite effect. Just as it was useful for you as a child to develop long term, stable bonds with the people who cared for you, so it is important for those children. To take part in orphanage volunteering is to take part in a cycle of creating and abandoning relationships that helps nobody emotionally except you.

Secondly, unless the agency you are volunteering with has done background checks on the lot of you, they are being superbly irresponsible in allowing you carte blanche to enter the institution and interact with the kids. No sane orphanage that has the interests of its children at heart would allow hundreds of complete strangers to play with their children each year. Any that does is failing in their duty of care and should not have you as an accomplice in doing so.

These are just the ethical objections to orphanages, mind you. But it should serve to raise questions that may apply to wider sets of projects regarding children.

OK, so no orphanages. What about a building project in…
Building projects, whether helping to paint murals or erect whole structures in places such as Peru may not be quite as obviously fraught with problems as orphanages, but nevertheless deserve a pause and reflection on your part as participant.

It’s useful, for example, to take a look at how the project is structured. Who are you working with? How are you working with them? Is it part of a larger plan?

spending a hundred dollars in an impoverished community painting the inside of a school is never developmental, no matter what the voluntourism coordinator told you.

While NGOs exist that have an exceptional track record of building useful, useable structures, there are equally as many fly by night operations more concerned with giving you something to do than with actually helping a community. A more ethical project will likely have chosen what it is that they will be working on after consultations with the community they are working in, and it will form part of a larger project plan. A one-library project, while satisfying for those who volunteer to build it, is not development if done in isolation. Equally, spending a hundred dollars in an impoverished community painting the inside of a school is never developmental, no matter what the voluntourism coordinator told you.

Check that your partner NGO, or their partner, has a development plan for the community. One in which the work you will be doing is a meaningful contribution. And check that the long term plan that they have for a community’s development sounds legit. Lots of talk about rebuilding community spirit probably means that there isn’t one. A long term plan centered on water and sanitation, housing and infrastructure probably means that someone has put a great deal more thought into it.

It can be as simple as contacting your prospective voluntourism organisation and asking them how they choose their projects and what their overall plan is for the communities they deal with. Or hop onto Google and check them out. If they have been around for a while, odds are good that somewhere, someone has blogged, reviewed or otherwise talked about them. Finding such feedback from previous participants can give you an excellent outline of whether they are a responsibly-run group doing the kind of work that you are interested in doing.

Follow the money. The ethics of the economics
Also worth considering are the economic consequences of your volunteering. At the most basic level, interrogate the operator about how much of the cash you might be paying to volunteer is actually going to the community. You might be impressed or disgusted with the answer. If they can’t tell you, then they are either hiding something or they don’t know. Either way, it makes them a poor choice of local partner.

Beyond questions of how much money though, are questions of where the money is being spent. If you are working on a building project, how much of the materials were bought from local businesses? Development starts with supporting what services and materials the community can provide already, not destroying local initiative by bringing in tools, materials and skills from outside that are currently available in the local economy.

Odds are good, for example, that basic building supplies exist for sale in the area, and that there are people already skilled in masonry and other artisinal practices nearby. Where situations like this exist, your participation as a (probably) unskilled participant might be best directed at doing work that will allow local community members to practice their professions in a paid capacity onsite. Such approaches promote employment, get things built faster, and support the local economy.

Development starts with supporting what services and materials the community can provide already, not destroying local initiative by bringing in tools, materials and skills that are currently available.

Unfortunately, such projects typically mean that you will find yourself a manual labourer working under a local foreman. Which might not be what you bargained for. As Alexia Nestoria, a voluntourism industry consultant and the voice behind the Voluntourism Gal blog points out, an overwhelming proportion of volunteer projects don’t actually need volunteers to do the work that they are volunteering to do. Not only are there often local people willing and able to undertake the projects, but the time required to actually train and monitor unskilled well-wishers often detracts from effort that communities could otherwise put into just getting on with implementing projects themselves.

The reason for taking volunteers on despite their relative inefficiency is generally because those volunteers are funding the projects. Volunteers are seldom willing to send their cash, but stay at home themselves. Even when it would be a more rational and efficient approach.

So the question that you need to then ask yourself is:

Why am I doing this?
If you are purely interested in doing good, to the exclusion of all other aims, then simply donating your volunteering money to a decent and efficient local organisation may well achieve those aims best.

But simply wanting to do good in the abstract is seldom the motivation for those who travel to volunteer. Many would-be voluntourists have a desire to be a physical part of the project and to have a hand in making the world – quite literally – a better place. Here, a voluntourist needs to make some practical decisions about where their assistance will be most helpful (or minimally troublesome) for a community.

If you have particular specialist skills that are not easily available locally, then consider partnering with organisations that can use those skills. Sure, making a website for a local NGO may not be as sexy as getting your hands dirty building a school, but other people may be able to build walls. Not everyone can set up a decent website, and that makes your contribution necessary and valuable in a way that your grunt labour isn’t.

…and who am I doing this for?
No good volunteerism project works by making heroes out of foreigners in the local community – it’s about working with local groups to achieve development aims as directly and usefully as possible. If that means that you aren’t the top dog on the building site, and the local guy who actually knows how mortar and bricks go together is, then so be it.

Putting the power of the free market to efficiently satisfy demands together with narcissistic fantasies of helping the impoverished is a recipe for disaster.

That said, there is a school of thought that says that voluntourism should be approached from the point of view of the customer. That people want to feel good about themselves, and that should be catered to as much as possible because the free market will work to weed out the poor projects from the good (watch the first few minutes of this conference, for example) and a growth in good volunteer-centered projects will ensue.

The danger here however, is that the kind of voluntourism project that appeals to a naive traveler’s ego is precisely the project that is unlikely to be developmentally helpful to communities. Projects that are primarily about you as the participant tend to be short lived, low-effort and frequently without a long term goal – since the ‘goal’ is not developmental at all. It’s about making you feel good. Putting the power of the free market to efficiently satisfy demands together with narcissistic fantasies of helping the impoverished is a recipe for disaster.

Oh god. Can I do no right?!
You can. And there are many reasons that you should. But it’s important to pay attention to the fine detail. Questions about where the money goes and the intricacies of your relationship to the community you serve are absolutely fundamental to directing your energies wisely. If you are taking the trouble to go out of your comfort zone to make life better for others, the least you can do is your homework, and to be aware of the complexity of the questions you need to ask.

Voluntourism wouldn’t exist as an industry if travelers were happy to efficiently donate money for local organisations to do the work themselves. For better or worse, many folk want to have a hand in the process of helping communities. That desire can be a useful (or at least benign) learning experience, or it can be wholly unhelpful. To what degree your next journey to volunteer abroad will be one or the other depends a great deal on how you are able to honestly confront some difficult questions about why you are going, who you are going for, and whether you are participating in a project that – in the fine detail – is going to be a force for good.

You may find yourself surprised at how quickly the most straightforward school-building project can become an exercise in self-analysis. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s also absolutely necessary.

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