Voluntourism: Help or hindrance?

Do trips combining sightseeing and volunteering satisfy anyone? More importantly, is there a point to voluntourism?

6 mins

Like a Hollywood star and his childhood sweetheart, the marriage of tourism and volunteering is one you really want to work, but so often ends in acrimony.

On paper, it’s a perfect match: travellers from wealthy countries help out the developing world as they pass through – a few days teaching here, some building work there, and a holiday to boot. Tour operators have responded by brochuring community projects, while volunteer agencies have launched adventure tours. Want to help slum kids and see the Taj Mahal? Now you can.

But in practice, the criticisms have mounted up. What difference can an unskilled Westerner make in a few days? Aren’t you just using up resources, ‘solving’ irrelevant problems and promoting a hand-out culture? Is it time for voluntourism to get a divorce?

Not necessarily, says Chris Hill of Hands Up Holidays, whose two-week trips combine – for example – ballooning over the Masai Mara with work at a Nairobi orphanage, or cruising Vietnam’s Halong Bay with helping victims of Agent Orange.

“We recognise our clients are not going to change the world with five days of volunteering,” says Hill, “but because most are more affluent, they are in a position to fund the projects on a long-term basis after having interacted with the community. Our clients also get inspired to do more substantial volunteering after having had a taste of volunteering with us.”

Just for money?

For the host community, then, the ‘real difference’ voluntourists make is primarily financial. The idea that these trips are not really about providing useful skills is echoed by Paul Medley of the Adventure Company, which recently introduced a brochure of ‘Hands On Adventures’: “We deliberately avoided the word ‘voluntourism’ because the contribution is fairly minimal. We looked for projects we already knew, where travellers could help without imposing.” Trips include a loop through Sri Lanka with three days helping monkey researchers at Polonnaruwa. “It’s a project that’s been going for a number of years, where anyone can help collect data,” says Medley. “There’s a financial contribution built into the trip price.”

One of the biggest criticisms levelled at voluntourism is that it’s arranged around the feel-good demands of Westerners rather than the real needs of communities.

A 2007 survey for Tourism Concern found a third of returned volunteers (on placements of all durations) felt they ‘gained a lot but the benefit to the host community was limited’, while only 1% felt their hosts gained more than them.

But for many, the greatest appeal of a hands-on trip is the cultural exchange it offers; if well managed, it can be rewarding for both sides.

If you expect to transform lives, you’ll be disappointed. But if you go to experience another culture, make a financial donation to a worthwhile project, and follow up afterwards, you might still get that Hollywood ending.

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