I Volunteered With the Best of Intentions. Here's Why I'll Never Do It Again.

by Claire Litton Cohn Feb 10, 2016

When I was 19 and preparing for my big “I’m going to Europe instead of college” trip, I found a list of volunteer opportunities. I booked my place, and ended up spending a couple weeks in the tiny French town of St-Vincent-De-Barres, doing…some kind of stonework restoration? Mostly what I remember is hanging out with my fellow volunteers, hiking in the nearby woods, and eating group breakfasts. I felt very useful; instead of spending my days going to museums, I was helping a community that needed it, meeting people I never would have met otherwise, and doing it all in southern France instead of boringly at home. It never occurred to me until way later that what I did was voluntourism, and they probably didn’t really need me at all.

A lot of volunteer vacations sound like great deals: you spend a week or two helping build houses or teach English. It usually costs a bit more than traveling there on your own — sometimes a lot more — but your room and board are included. Sometimes part of your payment goes to providing supplies for the job you’re doing, or paying local experts to give on-the-job training. You usually also get to cram in some sightseeing and maybe even a home-stay with a local family. At the end of the trip, you leave with a warm internal sensation of a job well-done, and the volunteer organization thanks you for all your hard work.

In reality, though, a lot of these opportunities can actually be detrimental to the very communities you’re trying to help. Here’s why you should think twice about volunteering on your vacation.

1. Voluntourists aren’t trained professionals.

Many available volunteer opportunities involve fairly intense work: building houses, digging wells, removing debris. These are all jobs that you can’t teach someone to do well in only a few weeks. If you need basic untrained labour to carry rocks or dig holes, I suppose volunteers could be useful, but ask anyone who’s tried to run a soup kitchen or even organize a club: untrained hands on deck are often worse than nobody at all. I have heard stories of local workers quietly coming in every evening to undo the wreckage performed during the day by unskilled, confused volunteers. Plus, even if some of the workers did get better at performing their tasks, they’re leaving in two weeks. Imagine being the boss of a project where, as soon as you get your staff working well, they all get fired and replaced. Wouldn’t you rather just hire people you knew you could keep?

Also, unfortunately, having jobs reserved for unskilled volunteers occasionally prevents local craftspeople and artisans from finding gainful employment in their own community. By engaging in voluntourism, you could actually be preventing someone who knows what they’re doing from having a job.

2. Voluntourists aren’t having “real” interactions with locals.

It’s tempting to believe that, by volunteering, you’re really engaging with the locals in a totally different way. You’re not just handing them some money for a hotel room and going off sight-seeing; you’re living among them.

It’s hard to face, but: you’re rarely having meaningful relationships with the locals. They know you’re there temporarily; nobody is going to get really attached to people they know are leaving. Lonely Planet, in fact, specifically discourages travelers from volunteering in schools and orphanages, because children are especially prone to getting attached…and then being emotionally destroyed when they are essentially abandoned in a few weeks.

You’re also automatically in a power imbalanced relationship. Chances are, you’re paying more money to “help out” than people in the town make in a month, or maybe a year. They know that if you don’t have a good time, they won’t get regular assistance and money coming in. Obviously some people can develop friendships with visiting voluntourists, but it happens in spite of the volunteering set-up, not because of it.

3. Voluntourists are parachute activists.

So-called because they show up in a community to “save the day” without having any knowledge or awareness of the impact of their actions, parachute activists are related to what Teju Cole calls the “white saviour industrial complex”. As Cole says, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Voluntourists show up to “fix” things, then leave after an absurdly short amount of time, feeling passionately engaged and connected to a community and set of problems that they can just walk away from. Indigenous and local activists often want and need assistance…but in ways that don’t coincide with comfortable, easy, two-week-long paid tourism stints.

4. Voluntourism projects are often bandaids when an area needs real solutions.

I worked with a worldwide service organization that had built a hospital in a remote African town. Some members of the group told me they wished they had thought about the details more effectively before doing it, though, because there was no more money for replacement supplies or to continue paying staff. There also wasn’t enough money to pay for the huge electricity costs (also not regular enough electricity) incurred by the hospital’s diagnostic equipment. When everything ran out, the hospital just sat empty, gathering dust, and everyone in the local town went back to traveling a few hours to the closest large city.

Providing quick solutions to more systemic problems is short-sighted, and ultimately, can end up causing a lot more issues than fixing them. At the very least, it can be a waste of resources that would be more effectively spent elsewhere.

5. Voluntourism projects sometimes require locals to take on their morals or ideals before receiving help.

If you live in a remote and developing area and you want teachers for your school so your kids can learn to read and write, your only option might be, for example, Jesuit missionaries. This option comes with a heaping side of Christianity and cultural influence. A lot of organizations bring their own biases and agendas into the communities they are hoping to help, whether explicitly stated or not.

The Peace Corps is another example. It was originally developed in the Cold War as an “army” to suppress the spread of communism. Sandy Smith is quoted in Roar Magazine as saying: “Peace Corps volunteers must try to do good without challenging the status quo, even though most of the countries served by the US Peace Corps are ruled by military dictatorships. Since these governments are inevitably allied with the United States, it is clear that what a volunteer program like the Peace Corps is most good for is public relations.”

6. Voluntourism projects can impact the local economy in negative ways.

Conde Nast Traveler says: “Yes, in a perfect world it might be better to have Haitians build their own homes. But the reality is that if volunteers weren’t here,” says Jeune, “the funding wouldn’t come in.” Communities that become dependent on voluntourism dollars to sustain their livelihoods or economic system are severely damaged when (not if) the volunteer organization pulls out. Volunteers often take jobs away from local craftsmen, who are then forced to either work farther afield or join forces with the volunteer organizations rather than be independently employed. A country’s economy is complex, and the presence of volunteer organizations could also even draw negative attention from local guerilla or dictatorial groups, depending on where you are. Ultimately, sustainable assistance to developing countries MUST be based on grassroots, supported movements that can effect wider and more lasting change.

7. Voluntourists are often less helpful to communities than regular tourists.

Volunteers may feel like sitting on the beach and sipping drinks while staying in a local hotel ignores the real issue: that people are living in poverty just around the corner. But, as Conde Nast Traveler points out, this is disingenuous: ““Of course we want you to come to Haiti for vacation,” says Guerlyne Jean Louis, who runs the [volunteer] projects. “We love Haiti. We are proud of Haiti. Please come and spend your money!””

Tourism is a huge income source for many people in developing countries, and like it or not, by participating in it, you are providing income to people who need it. When I used to work in the library system, we were often frustrated by donors who gave us money specifically earmarked for books…when what we actually needed more of was computer keyboards or book trolleys. Supporting people’s family businesses — their hotels and markets and tour companies — serves a purpose and sometimes does more good than parachuting in for two weeks to sort of learn how to lay some pipes for a new water system.

Generally, volunteering is admirable. I highly suggest that everyone be involved with some kind of volunteer opportunity…in their own community. There are many places that need help where you live, where you can make a commitment of more time and energy. If you want to engage in voluntourism, chances are you care about other people and want to do good in the world; this attitude shouldn’t be squashed, but you can provide more useful, more long-lasting impacts by directing it towards your own home.

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