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Volunteer tourism: is your trip altruistic or ineffective?


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Volunteer tourism is part of an emerging trend of travel, particularly popular amongst young people. This type of tourism entails individuals from one country, normally in the Global North, travelling to another nation, often in the Global South, to "do good deeds". These deeds can range from teaching children, building infrastructure, assisting the local community, to working on developmental projects.

Yet, these types of activities and schemes have begun to receive criticism from international and local organisations.

Image credit: ray sangga kusuma on Unsplash

Many have started to question their ability to succeed in their goals to enforce change for good or alleviate poverty. Even more worryingly, concerns have been raised about the potential harm of these programmes, most notably around how they hinder the self-sufficiency of local communities and augment ethnic and racial divisions between the predominantly white saviours and the local population.

I am an international relations student and through learning about global social injustice issues, our lecturers have also pointed to growing concerns amongst fellow academics regarding this supposedly altruistic enterprise.

Most prevalent amongst the plethora of concerns is a cost-benefit analysis. Is volunteer tourism the most rational use of one’s money? For example, if you raise £1,000 to travel to the other side of the world to volunteer for three weeks, a more rational use of one’s money may be to directly channel it through an individual or organisation that is already stationed out there to continue their work.

When outlining this argument to friends who have volunteered abroad, the most common rebuttal is that volunteer tourism gave them the satisfaction that they had done the work themselves and the experience also let them gain first-hand skills and life lessons.

While this is true, one has to then question their priority in helping those in need. Is it to make them feel as though they have done something good, or is their priority to simply selflessly help others?

In other words, does volunteer tourism focus on feeling good, rather than doing good?

Understandably, the argument pertaining to donating money to organisations and individuals already stationed abroad is flawed, with many studies showing that a large percentage of donated money is often lost through various transactions.

Therefore, there will never be a perfect, zero-waste, solution to giving money to help those in need. Nevertheless, it could still be argued that the cumulative amount spent by young people simply hopping on a plane equals to more money than would be wasted through the percentage loss that occurs through donation.

For example, it has been reported by The Guardian that, in the case of Honduras, that if well-wishers had contributed money rather than labour, then 15x more houses could be built.

Moreover, bringing unskilled young people from the Western world to, for example, build a well and then to leave after a couple of months, is shown to be greatly economically ineffective.

With employment rates at a staggering low in many of these local communities, perhaps it would be more sustainable in the long term to train the local community to carry out these jobs. This not only benefits those directly in the Global South, but also negates feelings of worthlessness, subordination, and inferiority that these schemes could potentially generate.

Many projects also simply don’t work.

“There are few things more cringe-worthy than watching 20 British schoolgirls trying to build a well under the scalding Nepalese heat," a Durham University student tells The Guardian.

Another student, who volunteered in Tanzania, says: “We were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.”

It may be useful to bear in mind your experience and skill levels when selecting a project.

What about cultural concerns? While the majority of young people are sensible, a small percentage are clueless about appropriate behaviour when entering different cultures. It is important that you educate yourself about cultural differences. Enter a country with great admiration and respect towards locals for letting you assist with their work. Many of the countries that house these volunteer programs have a lot of hatred towards Western communities.

This article is not to say that we should stop volunteering abroad, nor is every point relevant to all forms of voluntary activities abroad. There are in fact many organisations that are aware of these issues. For schemes running in remote areas which are not benefiting from any form of aid or pre-existing programmes, volunteer tourism can often be their only source of development.

Additionally, in an increasingly divided and segregated world, maintaining strong connections between the young people of different nations is important.

Nevertheless, we should learn not to mask the negatives effects of our actions just because we are simply helping others. Often, those who have volunteered abroad become understandably defensive of their actions. When conducting in-depth research on this topic, a common problem that kept emerging was the bias that many young people had, simply because they themselves had volunteered abroad.

It is only by stepping back and acknowledging the faults in the system that we are able to rectify them and make the pre-existing establishment better.

Students should take time to learn about the politics, culture, economy, and social histories of the places that they are visiting. They should be made to think of their experience as a cultural exchange, taking the opportunity to learn from the beautiful cultures of the local people abroad. They should not use their volunteering experience as a photo opportunity or something that you will simply write on their CV.

You should thoroughly research the companies that you will be volunteering with. Volunteer with companies that benefit local communities. Research exactly where your money will be going. Choose companies and schemes that are reputable, ensuring they have a BS 8848.

Lead image credit: ray sangga kusuma on Unsplash

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