Two billion dollars. That’s the amount organizations and individuals spend each year on voluntourism, a type of travel that combines tourism with service. An estimated 1.6 million voluntourists embark on trips ranging from a few days to a few weeks to third world countries each year. By definition, voluntourists have little or no formal skills or training. Voluntourist experiences are typically run by non-profit organizations, many of which have received criticism recently for focusing more on the short-term needs of participants than on the long-term needs of the locals.
One writer, Pippa Biddle, shares an experience she had when she went on a voluntourism trip to India to build a library and help take care of orphans. She and her fellow travelers, all self-described “privileged white girls,” spent many days mixing cement, laying bricks, and building walls for the orphanage’s library. What they did not know, however, was that the walls they worked so hard to build each day were structurally unsound and had to be removed and rebuilt by local professional bricklayers each night while the girls were sleeping.
Members of Biddle’s group paid thousands of dollars and flew to India with good intentions, but their good intentions didn’t get them very far. Voluntourists often end up doing mmore harm than good when they travel to third world countries with no skills, no understanding of the problems of the area, and no knowledge of what would best help the people there. Biddle and her group could have done more good if they had used their money to provide jobs for local bricklayers to build the library and for local caregivers to take care of the children.
When “Helping” is Hurting
Not all voluntourism is as harmless as unstable bricks needing to be re-laid, however. Like Biddle’s group, many voluntourist programs are aimed at helping orphanages. What many don’t realize, though, is that Save the Children estimates that a staggering 80% of orphans actually have at least one surviving parent. Many well-intentioned parents sell their children to orphanages because of the promise of a safe place to sleep, a consistent food source, and a chance at a better education. There are even those with evil motives who sell their children to get money. Because not all orphanages are innocuous as they may seem, Voluntourists who pay for trips to take care of orphans or fix up orphanages indirectly and unknowingly contribute to human trafficking and abuse. Some orphanage owners even purposely keep their orphanages looking run down so that people will give money and supplies. No amount of institutional organization can replace the home and family environment, so voluntourists should support organizations that place children in foster care situations rather than in orphanages.
In addition, many voluntourists with good intentions can end up unintentionally supporting a handout culture that creates dependence. Many voluntourism programs operate during the day, when voluntourists feel safer in rural or impoverished areas. Participants often bring food, clothing, toys, school supplies, and household items to hand out to locals, but only to those who are home during the day receive those items. Those locals who are out working to try to support their families miss out on the handouts, and after seeing the gifts their neighbors receive, they may choose to quit their jobs and stay home to wait for handouts. Voluntourists don’t always realize that when they give handouts, they are creating dependent communities.
These are just two issues that voluntourists may unknowingly cause when they visit other countries. There are dozens of ways that “helping” may be hurting, so consider all the ways your actions could affect the community you are trying to serve before signing up for a trip.
Voluntouring vs. Volunteering
That being said, there is a big difference between voluntouring and volunteering. Volunteering tends to be long term and requires participants to have professional skills or intensive training before they begin working. Professionals such as doctors, engineers, nurses, and dentists who have skills that locals don’t can make a big impact. In addition, those trained in international development are more likely to understand that the best change happens when local leaders are empowered to help their communities. Local leaders are the ones who understand the issues and culture, and when they have the skills and knowledge they need, they can make important advancements. Effective foreign service empowers local leaders to help their countries.
Pippa Biddle reminds us of the best way to help communities: “[Don’t] presume you know how to fix it and that going there yourself will be a solution,” she says. “Instead, seek out those who know the community and development best. Help them help the communities.”
When Helping Does Help
Of course, there are certain situations where donations from other countries are much needed: for example, after natural disasters or in countries destroyed by tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have been affected by war, natural disasters, and other serious problems and don’t have the infrastructure or resources to get back on their feet. In these situations, foreign aid is not only welcome—it is necessary. But anyone who helps with disaster cleanup needs to remember that the final goal of all humanitarian efforts should be to help local people become self-sufficient.
Before You Serve
Before you plan an elaborate service trip, remember that sometimes the best thing to do is simply visit other countries as a tourist. Many times, the best “service” you can do in other countries is to spend money on the tourism industry, providing jobs for the locals of the area.
It is also important to realize that you don’t need to fly halfway around the world to provide service to others. There are thousands of ways to serve in every community and town, no matter where you are in the world. Visit www.justserve.org to find ideas in your area. If you still consider going on a voluntourism trip, make sure that before you do any kind of work abroad, you consider all the potential implications of your service. Thoroughly research the organization putting together the trip, including where the money is going. Would it be better to just visit the place as a tourist and donate money to a charity? If you want a more authentic cultural or language experience, could you stay with a local host family? What are your motivations for visiting the place? Is your trip about taking impressive selfies with foreign children, beefing up your resume, or actually doing what’s best for the people? Ultimately, remember that your travel affects many other people. Choose to be a conscientious traveler and find ways to help without hurting.