Volunteer tourism: fun for the visitor, problems for hosts community?

What do you know about volunteer tourism?

Many of us have friends who went on vacation and came back full of stories about the two weeks they spent working as a volunteer in a children’s orphanage. His or Her Instagram is full of photos of boys and girls wearing simple clothes, but with big smiles on their face. He or she tells a lot of stories about the cultural shock and challenges they faced as foreigners but how worthwhile it was to help those people in need. Although it may sound beautiful and inspiring, what is on the surface can sometimes deceive and volunteer tourism – aka “voluntourism” – can disrupt a community much more than helping.

At first glance,  the traveler is giving up days of fun and relaxation to work for other people, trying to make a difference in the world. He or she is aware of their privileges and strive to offer something to society. This, in turn, creates the opportunity to discover the local culture, overcome personal challenges and even boost the CV. However, this journey invariably involves the lives of other people, so we have to consider a number of ethical issues in order to see what lies behind those pretty Instagram photos.

The controversy of voluntarism

The concept of going on a volunteer trip abroad is nothing new: this practice goes back a few decades but it has been transformed according to the current historical moment. Consequently, the popularity of this type of travel has grown especially among the generation of millennials. In shade of this, many middle-class 20-year-old westerners – who grow up in an environment of relative economic stability and have access to other cultures from an early age (either in person or on the internet) –  have somehow been convinced that they are “special” and can “make difference”.

At the same time, an array of companies take advantage of this and create seductive products that promise a transformative experience, promoting a romantic “change the world” idea for those who venture into a distant country – often charging a lot of money for it. In exchange for a few hundred or thousands of dollars (or less, for those who embark on it on their own), organizations promise to bring tourism to another level by offering benefits both to the traveler and the host community.

Unfortunately, many well-intentioned organizations overlook important issues and end up creating obstacles for the development of the local economy. Similarly, various ill-intentioned organizations set the space for more serious consequences such as human trafficking, sexual abuse and deep psychological harm. Still, there are many people and organizations who have positioned themselves to show the problems that voluntourism can cause, ultimately assisting new travelers in making their decision.

The case of orphanages

There are many areas where you can volunteer abroad: taking care of animals rescued from abuse or trafficking, working in the administrative area of an NGO, helping to rebuild a city damaged by natural disasters and a thousand cases. Nevertheless, the case of orphanages represents the most propitious environment for some of the worst consequences of volunteer tourism.

In countries like Cambodia, Uganda, Indonesia and Nepal, there are countless orphanages which offer the opportunity for young foreigners to spend time playing or helping to care for children. As cool and remarkable as this may sound, it can be troublesome for several reasons. First and foremost is the fact that many of these places are established as a means for their owners to profit from the fee paid by foreigners. In this way, irregular institutions are maintained with children who often aren’t orphans, but were taken from their family and used to lure donations.

That is not to say that all international volunteering is useless or harmful – by no means. The point is to be very well informed prior to the trip and choose the project where you will act and to think carefully about your attitudes, considering that what may be good or fun for you may present a problem for the host community.

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