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Debunking 4 common arguments in favour of voluntourism

Debunking 4 common arguments in favour of voluntourism

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a deluge of criticism of international volunteering (see here, here, here and here), particularly when involving unskilled young people. As the debate has raged on, exploring the positives and negatives of volunteering abroad, the number of unskilled volunteers has been ever-increasing, and the sector has seen new placement providers – for better and worse – popping up all over the world.

With an uneasiness around voluntourism having infiltrated our public consciousness, the question remains of why we continue to see a flood of unskilled volunteering overseas… Do people selfishly not care that they may be causing more harm than good? Do they not fully understand the negative consequences that could – and often do – result from their actions.

This post aims to debunk four common arguments made to justify unethical volunteer placements:

1. It can’t be that bad…

This is the most common argument for justifying voluntourism placements (and helping ease a worried conscience!). For people who don’t spend their studies or professional lives thinking about humanitarianism, the notion that spending two weeks cuddling Cambodian orphans could result in anything other than smiles and happiness might seem far-fetched. Even when possible negative outcomes are explained (child safety concerns, attachment issues, separation of children from family, etc.), it’s hard for individuals to see their own relatively insignificant involvement as leading to these horrific outcomes.

However, volunteers should recognise that they’re one drop in a far bigger, far more damaging ocean, and that their short placement should not be held in isolation. Volunteers may not be around to see the negative effects of their activity, or may be so ethnocentrically blinkered they cannot recognise what’s happening right in front them. But this doesn’t mean these effects aren’t absolutely real and long-lasting. International volunteering – when done badly – can and does result in serious harm.

2. Something is better than nothing!

Another common argument in favour of voluntourism is that something is always better than nothing. My previous post on the double standards of volunteering with children abroad was met with criticism from people arguing that, while having trained professionals to work with children would be preferable, sending untrained students is better than nothing. This attitude I find very concerning, as it’s part of a damaging rhetoric regarding the behaviour and standards required in Western countries, compared to the lesser standards accepted in developing nations.

Why is a child in Australia or the U.K. any more deserving of having trained professionals teach and look after them than a child in Botswana, Nepal or Peru? We need to stop settling for second-best when it comes to our involvement in the lives of other people, be they in another country or in our own. There may be a claim that something is better than nothing, but the “something” in question here could be much improved.

3. But the poor people need me!

Growing up in the aftermath of Band Aid and witnessing the rise of celebrity humanitarianism, I can understand why people have a genuine conviction that developing countries (especially in “Africa”) desperately need the help of ordinary, everyday, rich Westerners. You only have to watch TV or ride the London Underground to be bombarded with messages about how your $0.39 a day could save a poor child in X country. It is a relatively easy step from thinking, “All I have to do is give a few dollars,” to “Heck, I’ll just fly over there and help the poor people myself!”

However, this is a fundamentally flawed and unrealistic understanding of global inequality. Throwing money at poverty will not change the systemic imbalance of power that keeps the poor poor (and in some places, getting poorer). Likewise, unskilled “help” does not actually help anyone – except potentially the helper. Unskilled volunteers and second-hand clothes are not what people need. Instead, concerned citizens should be considering how to push for a dramatic shift in terms of global priorities, away from national interest and profiteering to true equality.

4. But it’s such a great opportunity for me.

Thousands of graduates each year try to land jobs in the development sector, but face setback after setback if they don’t have enough “field experience”. They are encouraged get experience by volunteering abroad before looking for a paid position. So, what do they do? They type “volunteer in Africa” or “volunteer in Thailand” into Google, book the opportunity with the best reviews, pack their bags, and off they go. Obviously the lack of critical thinking this displays is not a good quality for future development workers But unfortunately, big aid agencies and recruiters do little to explain to aspiring humanitarians the difference between good and bad volunteering.

Many young people feel they have to volunteer abroad to have a shot of getting the job they want, and they do so under the premise that, if the Oxfam’s and Save the Children’s of the world are suggesting this, it must be good. Even if, upon returning to their own country, volunteers think their project wasn’t as effective as it could have been, they can dispel any worries by concentrating on the fact that this experience will enable them to start a career in development and dedicate their whole lives to doing good. Voluntourism may not be good, but is it bad enough to potentially give up your aid career for?

Many argue that, through bad overseas volunteer experiences, young people come face to face with global inequality, returning home with their eyes opened. However, if this awakening is at the expense of real people with real lives, who may suffer real negative consequences, then you shouldn’t be interested. If you want a cultural experience, go travelling, build global friendships, and put money into local economies. You don’t have to feed into an industry making billions from exploitation to achieve this. And next time you find yourself in a voluntourism debate with someone making these arguments, remember that they’re easily debunked.

Featured image shows a volunteer teaching at a summer camp in Malawi. Photo from Waaw Foundation.

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Ruth Taylor

Ruth Taylor currently works as the International Development Manager for Student Hubs, leading the Impact International program, which aims to transform the way U.K. students engage with development, rights and international volunteering. Ruth is also a trustee for KickStart Ghana, supporting them on monitoring and evaluation, and is currently studying for her MSc in Human Rights at the London School of Economics.

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22 thoughts on “Debunking 4 common arguments in favour of voluntourism

  1. […] for those who are still unconvinced, this post on WhyDev debunks some common myths for voluntourism, such as “it can’t be that bad” and […]

  2. […] debunking 4 arguments in favour of voluntourism  […]

  3. I read this post fully on the topic of the resemblance of latest and previous technologies, it’s amazing article.

  4. […] 最後,對那些沒有被說服的讀者,請讀讀這篇刊登在《WhyDev》的文章,它駁斥了關於公益旅行的普遍迷思,例如「不可能那麼糟」和「有總比沒有好」。以下是文章摘要: […]

  5. […] have been many different articles written about the ineffectiveness of short-term voluntourism trips to developing nations, […]

    1. Mike Staggs

      Your article makes some good points, although in some cases “tongue in cheek” and it certainly is focused on service volunteers vs. mission teams. I would counter that most mission trips that I have taken part in are Christ-focused service trips. Setting up filtered drinking water, building playgrounds for orphans, supporting medical outreach in poor communities, delivering solar powered radios to remote areas, and providing teachers conferences with teaching supplies for poor private schools. These trips were planned with work in mind, for accomplishing positive post-trip conditions for Haitians. However, I would ask you “why not take a service trip” as opposed to spending money and time at the center of the secular world (Disney World). Volunteerism, if managed and led properly can have tremendous benefits on both the local community and the volunteer. By example, one year we completed a successful teachers conference in time to assist a small team that was building a playground. After hours of sweat and blisters I asked about the donated playground at this orphanage. The response impacts me still to this day. I was told that the playground we were building was for the orphanage because a little girl in America led a fundraiser. Although this was precious to me, what I was told next was a surprise. This organization would build most playgrounds in city centers, and not orphanages. I asked “how does this help children that need the care of an orphanage?” The response came with an awkward smile. Children that are abandoned or orphaned have no home. Those children have no place to go, so they stay at the playground. Social services learn about the children that never leave and can check on them, and often place them in a home. After the earthquake lots of money came into Haiti, roads were paved, new homes were built, and services improved. Today roads like the one to Sodo are filled with potholes. Close friends took a one week trip to Haiti in 2007, and by 2011 moved there full time. They are helping young adults learn trades, build chicken and fish farms, and teaching them language skills. The idea is that kids in orphanages eventually become adults, but often lack skills to enter trades. Today, Haiti is still very poor and welcomes mission and service teams. Disney also welcomes visitors.

  6. […] International volunteering has been in existence for several decades and is practiced in many forms.  ‘Voluntourism’ is a recent offshoot to traditional volunteering and is one of the fastest growing and most widely criticised areas of development.  Criticism of voluntourism, point to the increase of questionable ‘orphanages’ in South East Asia, the growth of slum tourism, particularly in Africa, the economic consequences of unskilled foreigners doing work which could otherwise go to locals and the strain on often scarce local resources.  There is also a wider argument of NGO’s picking up the slack, in areas where governments and national institutions should be providing services and being accountable to their populations.  Despite most international volunteers having the best of intentions, many programs they participate in can and do create a negative impact. […]

  7. […] years ago, I signed up for a voluntourism program in Vietnam. I was 18, and I was going to help street children learn English. For a week of […]

  8. […] talked about why voluntourism is bad and why you should be careful about taking pictures of locals. But most pieces like these […]

  9. John Marshall

    The world needs us all. The unskilled and the skilled. The young and idealistic as well as the old and enlightened. Everyone. It’s an imperfect system, but people are imperfect. Not everyone has a PhD in child development. Some just have money to contribute. Some have big hearts. Some are full of themselves. Some are selfless. But the one constant in all of this is the need. The vast gaping need that exists in the world. How do we meet this need? Do we wait for truly qualified people to come forward? Do we find fault in every attempt and criticize anyone who talks about their service trip? As someone who has taken my family for six months of volunteering our way around the world, I can tell you this. We volunteer not to change the world. We do this to fall in love with the world. Because it’s impossible to sit here and write blog posts about the poverty or sad despair or the mistakes being made, without getting out there and making some mistakes ourselves. If we want to open our hearts, to come together, to find inspiration, to be transformed, to figure out how to do this right,…we need to get out there and do something. In the process, we may not change the world, but the world will definitely change us. And that change, that connection, is the most important thing that volunteering fosters.

    John
    johnmarshall.com

  10. Excellent blog as always Ruth. I’d like to pick up on a couple pf points from the comments.

    Firstly, it’s really easy to sling the ‘volunteer hater’ tag at anyone who dares make a constructive critique of the sector. Ruth clearly doesn’t have a problem with people wanting to help others, she encourages that, but questions the structures and education systems in place to empower people to do just that. At the moment we have way too many organisations saying that overseas volunteering is easy, no training or qualifications are needed. That needs to change because it couldn’t be further from the truth.

    I agree that everybody has personal skills and strengths but this surely doesn’t equate to letting them wander all of the world doing whatever they wish. Just as we wouldn’t expect an unqualified person to do surgery, we shouldn’t allow unqualified people to work with children, vulnerable or not. Anybody can volunteer but they need to understand where they can best apply themselves and how. That position might not be as glamourous as they first imagined and I completely agree with the points that Weh Yeoh (@wmyeoh) makes on that topic. If they *really* care about making a difference then they’ll equip themselves to do just that.

    I also completely disagree with those that say larger organisations don’t want to work with volunteers. I run the Volunteer Centre at LSE and we have charities chomping at the bit to meet and recruit our students. Just last week we have 24 organisations come to our International Development Volunteering Fair, including UN Volunteers, VSO, The Cherie Blair Women’s Foundation and Y Care International amongst others. They understand the importance of volunteerism in the 21st Century. They also understand that trained and qualified people need to be working at focal points if they are to make an impact.

    The fact that so many people aren’t following best practice shows that we need articles like Ruth’s to keep raising awareness and highlighting bad practice. Many of the WhyDev readers might think that this argument is over but I assure you that it isn’t. So make sure you share this with colleagues, friends and most importantly those that wish to volunteer overseas. Hopefully in the coming years we’ll end up with a generation that isn’t just desperate to change the world, but they’ll know how too as well.

    1. I need not make my comment – I just say ditto! oh and Ruth – see post of quote from Ghandi I made today!

  11. Dear Ruth,

    I will start by the end of your post and change a few words.

    “Many argue that, through traveling, people come face to face with global inequality, returning home with their eyes opened. However, if this awakening is at the expense of real people with real lives, who may suffer real negative consequences, then you shouldn’t be interested. If you want a cultural experience, go travelling, build global friendships, and put money into local economies. You don’t have to feed into an industry making billions (just travel cheap – stay in hostel, close your eyes and honestly believe that you are making a difference with your purchase) from exploitation to achieve this. And next time you find yourself in one of those never ending debate with someone making these arguments, remember that they’re easily debunked.”

    I think that the voluntourism debate is suffering from a bad case of Münchhausen.

    Here’s my list

    1) Travel like you think you are making a difference by purchasing locally.

    2) If they speak the language (they are local) don’t worry. Really they are “locals”

    3) When you get to these exotic place – close your eyes and tell yourself that this poverty is the pigment of your imagination and maybe it was caused by volunteers but since you are buying locally – things will be fine.

    4) If you see some obvious poverty and inequality — don’t worry one of these BINGO’s (or Big NGO) is there to make sure things are done correctly — if you don’t believe me…look at Haiti.

    5) If someone ask you to help — explain that you can’t — you might just take someone’s job by doing this and you are buying locally so things are great.

    6) While sitting in the plane (both ways) read the nice brochure and make sure you have kept some money so that someone can plant trees so you can go on a holiday — you wouldn’t be so selfish to travel and not offset your carbon footprint would you!?

    7) When you go back home…show everyone the nice pictures of the beach and the buffet…it’s all locally grown and farmers are making lots of money. So the more you eat — the more they make money.. right!!

    8) When you are back home, pay more for imported goods thinking that it’s actually making a difference and paying more means that this money go to the farmer.

    At the end of the day — who cares! Enjoy the trip and things will balance out. Stay in school…read a good book about international development and you can join the ranks!

    Oh yes before I end my contribution – I wanted to let you know that the word “unskilled” should only be used for people that are not alive. It’s extremely condescending for you to think that anyone alive would be “unskilled” – a person may not have the right skill but if your heart beats — sorry to inform you that…that person has a skill.

    Saludos cordiales….

    1. Dear Ruth!

      I forgot …to mention that if you are pigmentally challenged — forget it — don’t do anything…just buy.

      Luc

  12. I think there are some good alternatives to volunteering, depending on the volunteer’s motivation. If it’s travel, adventure, or learning, study abroad (or even just travel) is a good option. If it’s more out of a sense of altruism, getting involved in advocacy at home or fundraising for an existing organization could meet the same goal. Volunteering domestically is also option, although I’m not so sure it’s necessarily free of the problems of voluntourism. But even though plenty of alternative options exist, there’s still the (big) question of how to encourage people to do something besides voluntourism.

    For people who are volunteering to get experience and start a career in aid, though, these other options probably won’t cut it. In terms of job qualifications, someone with experience volunteering abroad is seen as having the requisite field experience, which people wouldn’t get through the other options I mentioned. To combat that issue, employers and hiring managers need to change their perception of what constitutes relevant experience, or look more at whether people learned from their experience than at the fact of the experience itself.

  13. Alysia Antonucci

    Volunteering is framed as an accessible entry point for those interested in working in the field. I think it is important not to have a ‘leave it to the professionals’ attitude because it perpetuates that feeling of exclusion. I agree with you about the harms that can be done by voluntourisim but, as Rachel said, we need to find a way to create solutions that posses the engaging and accessible qualities that volunteering offers, only with less harmful effects.

    1. While volunteering is definitely a way to get into development, that doesn’t necessarily mean frontline, unskilled and potential harmful (eg interaction with children) volunteering. I’m assuming this is the type of volunteering that Ruth is mostly referring to.

      Volunteering as an entry point to development should mirror the kind of roles that someone is likely to get once they are hired in development. In other words, pretty much the opposite of the above. Way behind the frontline, highly skilled, and relatively harmless (except for the possibility of paper cuts from the annual workplan).

      If volunteering is boring, in the head office, and well away from children, you’re probably not only doing something constructive, but also setting yourself up with experience that you’ll actually use once you get a job.

  14. While I agree with all of your points Ruth. I’d love to move the discussion away from why voluntourism is bad and how we can refocus peoples want/need to help in a constructive and educated way. I think simply telling people they are doing it wrong won’t help anyone. The truth is we do need to understand the world through each others eyes and we can’t change the future if we don’t understand why things are the way they are. So what’s the alternative? I’d love to hear people’s ideas.

  15. I think the volunteer haters are just missing the point.

    We need a world where people volunteer to help each other. Not only next door, also far away, in other cultures, races. A world where solidarity is a verb, not an idea.

    The focus on professionalism is just missing the point: making the service more professional by destroying the bigger picture.

    The real problem is the framework. If the legit NGOs would embrace volunteerism, and put it in the right framework, the negative effects would be much less.

    Now the volunteer market is exploding, and fly by night actors are taking advantage. The legit organisations are just standing at the side and see it happen.

    I tell you some news: volunteerism is exploding and cannot be stopped. Turning your back to it is butting yourself outside of the loop. Wake up, and do something constructive instead of making another useless list of 4 reasons, ten reasons or whatever.

    1. Hi Sam,

      Thanks very much for taking the time to read my blog and leave a comment. I really think dialogue around these issues is key, so I was pleased to read your thoughts.

      Firstly, I want to clarify my position on international volunteering for you – I am a huge advocate of volunteering (be it in your own country or a country on the other side of the world to you) and fully agree that we need to see more and more of it. I do, however, think there is such a thing as bad volunteering, where very well-intentioned people can create more harm than good due to badly thought-through placements. This, of course, does not take away from the fact that their intentions were good, but if we want to overcome the problems which the world is facing, I would argue intentions are simply not enough! We need volunteering placements to be designed, delivered and followed up in a professional manner, so as to ensure maximum impact and sustainability.

      I very much agree with your point that larger NGOs need to be doing more to promote positive volunteering opportunities and critiquing potentially harmful ones (a point I make in the blog), as they hold a lot of influence within the sector. The problem here comes when you think about the mission statement of the majority of these INGOs – they specialise and work in development and aid, not volunteering, and thus quite often do not think this debate concerns them – or perhaps it just does not come up high enough on their priorities list.

      To respond to your final comment about the importance of me doing something “constructive” and not turning my back on volunteering, I would like to assure you that it is my full time job to work, alongside others, on transforming the international volunteering sector for the better; where young people and those that support then fully understand the complexities which exist around volunteering abroad, training them to be the best volunteers they can be and encouraging them to go on to be global citizens, tackling the inequality the world faces in order to improve it.

      I am sorry that you think this post is “another useless list of 4 reasons”, but, in my experience, of working with, training and supporting potential volunteers it is in fact very useful indeed.

      Kind regards,

      Ruth

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