When Voluntourism Becomes More Curse Than Blessing

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The current zeitgeist swings madly towards altruism. We saw this at the Oscars in hit films The Blindside and Precious; George Clooney and Simon Cowell showed how it’s done as they raised millions of dollars for Haitian earthquake victims and Angelina and Madonna’s ever increasing broods have been discussed in popular media, to nausea. Not to mention David Beckham’s trips to the war-torn Sierra Leone and She-Wolf-Shakira’s position as a UNICEF ambassador. And just like monkey-see-monkey-do, where the stars go we’ll swiftly attempt to follow.

Why not? Never has there been a better time for goodwill, and never has compassion been needed more than now. Globalization, despite all its evils, has made people in need more accessible than ever before. Frequently occurring natural disasters, under-reported genocides and ever-increasing poverty and social collapse mean that there will always be far more demand than supply of this particular trend.

Which brings us to ourselves: as mere mortals lacking the discretionary income and celebrity persuasion of Bono, it is sometimes difficult to know how we too can make meaningful differences. Thus were the terribly amalgamated nouns voluntourism, and the less popular but equally jarring travelanthropy, created.

From as early as the 1990s, volunteer vacations started appearing in travel agents, designed to cater for gap-year students and travelers who wanted to help the people they met, and yet had no experience in outreach work. Groups of young and old travel the world at their own expense to build schools, teach classes, paint orphanages and clean hospitals; one staggering statistic from the Travel Industry Association of America puts the number of people who have been on a volunteer vacation at 55 million and estimates that a further 100 million are contemplating a trip. Is this an entirely good thing? How couldn’t it be?

In the article “Voluntourism: what could go wrong when trying to do right”, Daniela Papi (an experienced voluntourist who works in Cambodia) highlights some of the concerns that are tipping voluntourism from helping hand to hindrance. Among these concerns are that many one-off projects have little impact (painting a school is of little assistance to students who have no teachers or books). Unskilled volunteers attempting tasks which if badly done often cause more harm than good by wasting time and resources.

Papi’s biggie, though, is the fostering of moral imperialism. She writes, “We assume, because we come from wealthier places with better education systems, that we can come into any new place without knowing much about the culture or the people, and we can fix things. We can’t! THEY, the people who live there and know the place well, can. Our job in the developing world can and should be to support them in doing so.” She cites examples of voluntourism gone wrong such as volunteers fund raising thousands of dollars for a trip, spending a few hours cooing over babies in an orphanage and thinking they’ve saved the world and well-intentioned travelers flying to Thailand after the Tsunami (taking up valuable food and accommodation resources by being there) and bringing crates of winter coats that could never be utilized.

As disheartening as it may be to think of all the wasted resources and the plethora of donations that will never be used, it is important to recognize the good that is being done. Travelers who choose their projects well and visit destinations with open eyes and minds are able to learn about different cultures and peoples while helping to facilitate upliftment. There are helpful resources for wannabe voluntourists, such as TheCharityRater.com which Saundra Schimmelpfennig (author of both the book and blog titled Good Intentions are Not Enough) founded, is helping donors to contribute in meaningful ways.

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Voluntourism.org offers the following tips to help your volunteer vacation bring sustainable change to areas in need:
# Take an inventory of the adventure service tourism resources
# Know the reality – is this needed? How might the environment be impacted?
# Start small – pilot projects are key; consider how long-term relationships can be created
# Monitor and evaluate – what can be done before, during and after service to continuously improve the experience for all those involved?

To learn more about how voluntourism can be more curse than blessing, read Richard Stupart’s great article for CNN.

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