A Guide to Voluntourism: Pros, Cons and How to Do It Right

By: Divya Kilikar

Published On: May 11, 2018

What’s your idea of a break? Whether you’re in college, or working a monotonous 9 to 5, some time off is always welcome to shake yourself and give your brain some new stimuli. If you're considering a sabbatical or looking forward to summer, you're probably looking to make some cheap travel plans.

We’re all wistfully sighing at blogs and vlogs of solo travellers who ventured into a community far away to make a world of difference. Through voluntour programs, they find a newer, more affordable way to travel, by spending part of the day working for a nonprofit and the rest exploring the region. They call it “voluntourism”.

What is voluntourism?

Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism began as a solution to the budget traveller who wanted it all and more; to travel, experience a different culture first-hand and to give back to the community. The idea of voluntourism is to ditch traditional tourism to truly understand and impact the local economy and “unlearn” at the same time.

The common voluntourist may be a college student taking a summer break, a fresher figuring out his career path, a retiree hoping to stay active, or someone in the middle of a career change or taking a sabbatical. Today, voluntourism is a full-fledged multibillion dollar industry, with nearly 50% of people in the United States looking to volunteer at some point in their lives. And Indians are catching up on the trend too. Take a look at these five wonderful organizations across the country where you can volunteer as you travel.

Sounds inspiring! How can voluntourism possibly go wrong?

The charity and social good industries keep using adjectives like rewarding, fun and exciting when they talk of their volunteer programs and go on about how easy it is to make an impact if we all simply join hands. The reality, however, shows otherwise.

Sure, volunteering and making a change while you travel sounds like a foolproof mix, but many heated discussions on the web say otherwise. Perhaps, before we pride ourselves on our brave decisions to take on the hardships that come with voluntouring, we should consider whether we’re truly capable of making the difference we hope to. Could we do more harm than good? Could we be unwelcome in this community? Are we equipped enough to deal with their problems? Can we find a way to voluntour responsibly, adhering to the true essence of the idea?

Let’s take a look at a common case of voluntourism.

The White Tourist’s Burden highlights a booming orphanage industry in Bali, Indonesia that caters to the voluntourists that come from the West. These are people hoping to immerse themselves in a new culture while changing the lives of orphans by paying for their nutrition and education.

If designer clothes and cars hint at superiority in wealth, doing these voluntour programs hint at a superiority in character among the same communities. It makes for great conversations where voluntourists come off as “global changemakers”.

The truth, however, is that Indonesian families drowning in poverty are aware of the industry and its workings. They send their children to be “pretend orphans” in orphanages so they have wealthy foreigners pay for their education. They teach their children to beg and display their poverty to attract attention.

Westerners who truly want to make a difference in the regions they travel to need to start doing their homework better; research needs to be done into locally based organizations that make a real difference for these children by approaching parents and funding their children’s education. Instead, unknowingly, an industry that supplies a demand for poverty and pitiable conditions to “save” people from is actively being supported.

Think: who’s benefiting here? The volunteer or the community?

Pippa Biddle wrote on Huffington Post about one of her high school trips, where she’d had the opportunity to travel to Tanzania with 14 other girls. Here, she lived through not only the first situation where racism didn’t favour white people, but also the first case of voluntourism and its cons. The kids were part of a program that spent $3000 to build a library for the children in a Tanzanian village.

For over a week, Pippa, her friends and teachers spent their days laying bricks only to realize later that their high quality education in the west had not equipped them to be able to perform basic construction work. Every night, men from the village would quietly pull down the poorly done work and rebuild the structure.

The following morning, they would act as if nothing had happened and the school children would be congratulated for their work.


However, westerners who have no idea about a foreign culture and its issues aren’t the only ones that are ignorant of the negative impact they’re making. Natalie Jesionka from The Muse wrote about a sample case of local voluntourism in English language camps run in Thai villages. These camps witness a large number of middle class students coming from the city in the same country. These students are severely ill-equipped to teach villagers. They half-heartedly run classes in Thai rather than English, spend most of their time taking pictures and leave, imparting absolutely no knowledge to any villager.

How do we approach voluntourism the right way?

The volunteer isn’t always the only one at fault. Quite often, it’s the organization that’s inefficient. They often swallow donations, are vague about numbers and are known to exaggerate stories of poverty to attract more international aid.

However, when you look at the larger picture, they aren’t the culprits either. Let’s face it. The idea of landing in a country you know nothing about, and helping out a community who you are a stranger to for a short span of time, is just not one that’s built for success.

That being said, don’t lose hope!

With some effort, if you’re keen on it, you can still find voluntour programs that will truly enable you to make a difference through voluntourism. Read about Jaclyn, a psychology major who travelled from the United States to Shillong to work with disabled children.

Key takeaways:

Take time to earn the trust of the locals: Sheltered communities that have been living in poverty for generations aren’t (and probably shouldn’t) willing to let a stranger help them, particularly someone from a different country, who is unfamiliar with their way of life.

Do your homework first: Extensive research needs to be done before one approaches a problem. This includes reading up on the language, culture, traditions, problems and solutions from the past, organizations that did real work and so on.

Be prepared for some hardship: Don’t expect a fun experience you’ll be telling stories about. You’ll need perseverance and dedication to understand the problem and gain the trust of these people.

Address what you’re truly looking for: What’s more important to you? A getaway, a vacation, the need to feel useful, or understanding another set of people, their needs and creating an actual impact?

Know your skills: and understand how they can be put to use efficiently. Don’t take up an English language teaching program just because you may be better than them. Learn from Pippa.

Figure out how much time you can give: A week or two, or even a month, will not do. If you’re able to set aside six months to a year at least, that’s when you have a chance to gain the trust of a community and understand its needs first-hand.

Make sure you aren't stealing someone's job: Ensure that the organization you are choosing does not take jobs away from the locals, but rather creates employment. Be aware of international volunteer programs that cost a mysteriously high price for a relatively poor community or country, unless you know exactly where the money is going.

Be open-minded to learning: Ditch your assumptions and knowledge because it’s based on where you were raised, not this new region where a solution that works back home may not work here for varying reasons.

And most importantly… understand that your role isn’t one of a savior.

Your intention should be to empower a community to help itself. When Pippa realized that her poor building skills weren’t what Tanzania needed, she took a step back to understand how she could help. She set out on another trip; this time, to the Dominican Republic, where she worked with HIV+ children. The staff and children both only spoke the local language, Spanish, which Pippa did not speak.

Over a span of six years, not only did Pippa get much better at the language, but she also stopped taking leadership of the programs run, instead choosing to pass on her fundraising and managing skills to the local staff. Now the children see hope and look up to their own people and their own parents for solutions, rather than a foreign stranger who swooped in the save the day and left.

Have you chosen to do a voluntour program before? Do you have some valuable insight that we can add to this blog? Drop us a mail at info@impactguru.com!

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