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.
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