Volunteering while traveling: the 'voluntourist' dilemma

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A combination of volunteering and tourism, voluntourism has become a popular form of travel over the past few years. At first glance, volunteering internationally may seem like the perfect opportunity to combine an eagerness to make a positive impact on the world with an exciting global adventure. However, there are many hidden effects associated with voluntourism that must be considered before going on such a trip.

When I visited Hermosillo, Mexico, on a voluntourism trip, I was able to learn a great deal about both the positive and negative effects of global volunteering. 

What is Voluntourism?

As the name suggests, voluntourism is an activity linking volunteer work to tourism. Volunteers generally work for organizations outside of their home countries partnered with local populations to advocate for issues such as education, health, and environmental sustainability. 

How Can Voluntourism be Beneficial?

If done right, voluntourism can be an incredibly meaningful experience.

Firstly, voluntourism can broaden cultural perspectives. Voluntourism is generally more immersive than tourism, and thus presents a unique opportunity for exposure to social inequities as well as environmental and political issues.

Increased cultural awareness further allows for the appreciation and preservation of traditions; volunteers generally travel to places that they would never usually visit, therefore allowing for an unprecedented global appreciation for historic monuments, cultural traditions, and religious practices. Rather than visiting an area like Cancun where resorts emulate Western living and culture is commoditized, I was able to experience everyday life in Hermosillo.

Voluntourism can further bring money into the local economy. Volunteers generally spend money on local lodging, food, and transportation as well as leisure activities such as heritage attractions, arts festivals, and sport-based activities.

While in Hermosillo, I attended fairs and basketball games with my host family in addition to eating food from local vendors and using public transportation. With increased economic contributions, employment opportunities and an increase in infrastructure development can be provided in host communities.

By volunteering internationally, a continued interest in global development may be fostered in volunteers. Volunteers may be more inclined to return to the places they have visited or even engage in more development work. Many of the volunteers I travelled with to Hermosillo are considering taking courses with the Faculty of Global Development Studies at my university following the trip.

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UNICEF/UNI212645/Tremeau

How Can Voluntourism be Detrimental?

While benefits to global volunteering exist, there are many negative aspects that must be considered as well. 

To begin, voluntourism does not necessarily benefit host communities. Volunteers generally stay for only a few weeks; this short term stay does not lead to the systemic change that is very often needed to lead to improvement.

Furthermore, there is often a lack of proper training provided for volunteers - it is often under qualified students working in health clinics or orphanages, fields that, in the West, require years of specific qualifications. At best, volunteers complete simple tasks that local workers could do; at worst, volunteers are implicated in unsafe practices.

While in Mexico, I and other volunteers taught English in areas where students did not have a formal education or had to drop out of school. While we were doing a job local teachers were not doing, it was something local volunteers could have easily done instead.

Voluntourism can further simplify inequality; it is common for individuals who are volunteering with these organizations to take photos with the local people in developing countries. These photos allow for real world issues to be simplified as they removes the historical context of colonization or corruption that often plague these nations. Photos can further perpetuate stereotypes; there is a widespread image of poverty-stricken communities that can be saved by Western intervention.

Poor intentions can further cause detrimental effects. Most obviously, volunteers may be participating in these trips for reasons of self gratification or career enhancement. However, many individuals from the West also go to these countries hoping to help mold and change lives.

Though there is nothing wrong with wanting to make a positive impact, these trips are often taken without considering the local culture and community beliefs.

Before my trip to Mexico, I ensured that we would be working with people in the local community and that I would be staying with a host family; this way, I would be integrated into the community and spending time with the locals. From small things such as the normalcy of wearing shoes in the house to larger things such as the healthcare system (after having followed my host brother to his physiotherapy appointment), there were a number of things I learned that I would not have been able to without a host family.

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© UNICEF/UNI182834/Ieroianni

THE GOOD ?

  1. Can broaden cultural perspectives, as it's generally more immersive than tourism.
  2. Can bring money into the local economy. Volunteers generally spend money on local lodging, food, and transportation.
  3. A continued interest in global development may be fostered in volunteers.

THE BAD ?

  1. Voluntourism does not necessarily benefit host communities,  as short term stay does not lead to systemic change.
  2. There is often a lack of proper training provided for volunteers.
  3. Voluntourism can further simplify inequality and poor intentions can further cause detrimental effect.

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Next Steps

There are a number of steps that can be taken to ensure that the negative effects of a global volunteering trip are mitigated.

Before agreeing to a trip, do research on potential organizations. Responsible companies should be able to provide evidence of the impact they have made through the work of volunteers, as well as demonstrate the sustainability of their future plans.

Next, be aware of social media posts. Be respectful of different cultures and traditions, avoid sweeping generalizations, and challenge perceptions by providing details and context such as names, locations, personal stories. Furthermore, be respectful of people - avoid vulnerable situations and locations such as hospitals and health clinics.

Lastly, consider volunteer locally as an alternative. Volunteering locally can provide the opportunity to work with different populations and make a positive impact while additionally providing the benefits of a long term position specialized to particular skill sets. This option is also low cost and requires must less administrative work!

Conclusion

Although it is often youth and students undertaking this global volunteering, both the positive and negative effects on local communities must be examined and the complexities understood before a voluntourism trip should be considered. As with all topics involving international development, the answers are not always clear and the impact of our actions are not easily elucidated.

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