In Juarez, Mexico, a group of American university students build houses. In Quito, Ecuador, medical professionals spend two weeks correcting cataracts – pro bono. In Kenya, handfuls of Hollywood stars try “making a difference” at orphanages. At the same time, these volunteers are having a travel experience. They stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and try to bond with locals. They are volunteer traveler hybrids known as voluntourists. Can they really see the world and save it too?
A rising tide of do-good travelers
“Voluntourism,” writes David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism.org, “is the conscious, seamlessly-integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination with the traditional elements of travel and tourism – arts, culture, geography, history and recreation – while in the destination.”
Over the past 20 years, companies and organizations have sprouted up to meet mushrooming demand for these experiences. In kind, journalists and researchers have also begun investigating the impacts. A recent ABC report, for example, examines the downsides of medical missions.
The benefits for the voluntourist are clear: meaningful cross-cultural exchanges; the chance to contribute to a vital humanitarian cause or project; and insights about life from people with different perspectives. But critics have legitimate questions. Can cross-cultural exchanges also lead to greater misunderstanding and loss? Can well-intentioned individuals on short-term schedules make a lasting difference? Is it really about the destination, or just an ego trip? The solution is complex.
Theory versus practice
In academic circles, best practices have been suggested to avoid voluntourism’s potential dark side. Academics cite potential negative impacts such as the overruling of locals’ desires, outright cultural loss or change, low quality of work completed, decreased demand for local labor, and poverty rationalization (i.e. a reinforcement of misconceptions about poverty).
Meanwhile, on the front lines of voluntourism, organizations have years of ground-level experience with connecting travelers to volunteer opportunities all over the world. Volunteer coordinators admit the road isn’t always smooth, and that when trying to place affluent Westerners in impoverished populations, anything can happen.
In a collection of interviews I collected with volunteer placement coordinators all over the world, however, the academic skepticism remained a distant abstraction. Coordinators recalled very few bad voluntourist scenarios, noting that experiences are overwhelmingly positive. Based on their diverse experiences, they offered their wisdom on practices to avoid as a voluntourist and how to volunteer abroad like you mean it. A cross section of those conversations follows.
What not to do as a voluntourist
Tim Rowse is is the director of WAVES for Development, which combines surf tourism on the Peruvian coast with community service projects. He recalled a difficult experience with one particular individual. “Pre-departure, we spent time corresponding with the volunteer on in-country travel logistics, setting up lodging, keying up staff for their arrival in Lobitos, Peru,” Rowse explains. “Preferring to trust that individuals will deliver on their commitments, we let payment slide until his arrival. Turns out, the volunteer decided to bypass WAVES all together and live in an unaffiliated hotel. His idea was to volunteer for WAVES from outside our system. That’s fine, we get people who don’t know about WAVES and show up in Lobitos wanting to help, but we couldn’t help but feel frustrated at how the events occurred.”
Perpetua Opoku-Agyemang is general manager of Student and Youth Travel Organization in Accra, Ghana, which provides a range of cross-cultural programs and support services. She laments some volunteers’ uncompromising attitudes. “We’ve had cases where a volunteer isn’t satisfied with the condition of our bicycles, so halfway through the journey, she or he abandons the bicycle and walks the rest of the way.”
Laurel Carlton is a volunteer coordinator in Xela, Guatemala, at EntreMundos, a non-profit that provides organizations and communities with training opportunities, resources and volunteers. Because EntreMundos emphasizes clients’ needs over volunteers’ requirements, personal irresponsibility can cause substantial problems.
“One volunteer went to an organization that networks with local producers of fair trade and organic products,” says Carlton. “The volunteer spoke Spanish, had marketing skills and, prior to arrival, she indicated she would stay for at least two months. The organization was quite enthusiastic about the volunteer, and spent several days training her and preparing an individual project. After her first week, the volunteer stopped showing up, and the organization was unable to contact her via email and telephone. Three weeks later, they received an email that she had decided to move on with her travels. The organization was so frustrated by this waste of their time, energy and resources that they have discontinued their volunteer relationship entirely.”
How to volunteer abroad like you mean it
Ground-level managers all look for similar things – a willing attitude, language capabilities, cultural sensitivity, applicable skills and open-mindedness – and they tend to agree that longer stays are most effective.
Carlton describes an ideal experience: “One young woman spoke advanced Spanish and had extensive marketing skills. She was exemplary in her work with an indigenous women’s weaving cooperative. She successfully won the organization over $1000 in funds to buy two much-needed sewing machines, she held several successful fundraising events, and she focused on improving ties with the weaving store’s external markets.”
A similar anecdote comes from Chris Engler, a program coordinator at World Unite. “We recently had a 43-year-old man, Olaf from Germany, who works in public relations. He came for six weeks to Tanzania to volunteer with an NGO that is dealing with female genital mutilation, which is a very sensitive issue. A lot of knowledge about local culture is needed to address rural tribal communities about the topic successfully. Olaf was excellent in listening to the NGO members and developing a PR strategy. He also raised funds for its implementation. Olaf is still in touch with us and is continuing with PR work for all the NGOs in Tanzania he got to know.”
Engler says that a positive attitude and cultural sensitivity are the key criteria of good voluntourists. Carlton, aside from prizing strong Spanish skills in EntreMundos’ voluntourists, agrees. “Great volunteers display flexibility, independence, personal maturity, initiative and a high level of openness and tolerance to a different culture. Humility and awareness of their status as a visitor in another country are also highly important.”
Sustainable Bolivia’s assistant national director, Erin Beasley, succinctly outlines a very healthy overall approach for would-be volunteers. “Observe what needs to be done and help to make that happen. Leave the place cleaner than when you arrived. When you receive generosity, respond with generosity. Be direct, thoughtful and patient when communicating with your new colleagues. And have fun! Your energy and spirit of helping is a great addition to your host organization.”
Voluntourism Dos and Don’ts
- Overstate your skills and abilities
- Make commitments you can’t keep
- Expect a free ride just because you are working
- Forget your priorities: In voluntourism, ‘tourism’ comes second
- Your homework. Look for transparency about how your fees are being used
- A deep self-evaluation of your motives and expectations before voluntouring
- Plan to stay awhile. The longer you stay, the more effective you can be
- Try it at least once in your life, no matter your age or experience level
Ready to volunteer abroad?
[Images courtesy WWOOF Canada and World Unite]