Over the past ten years, voluntourism and short-term volunteering have exploded in popularity. They seem to answer many of the classic criticisms of tourism and, unlike traditional international volunteering, let us go where and when we want. In short, this new type of trip seems too good to be true. In many cases it is.
Volunteering, wherever it occurs, risks creating unemployment. Why pay someone to do a job when someone else will do it for free? I visited one school in Malawi where the head teacher said she took Western volunteers because they were cheaper than paying local staff.
Sure, there are some projects that will not get done without volunteers – but you still need to ask why you are needed, and whether the work would not be better done by a paid local person. Maybe the best contribution you could make would be to help pay that person.
Are volunteers actually bringing skills? Often volunteers want to do what they don’t do at home. If they work in an office they want to dig a well or teach kids. But if you don’t know how to do something in your own country, how will you know how to do it in someone else’s?
Voluntourism can encourage Westerners to see development as ‘simple’, as something than comes from outsiders (rather than local people and governments) and that can be done by unskilled, but enthusiastic Westerners. But if development was that simple it would all have been sorted out long ago – and worse still, the ‘development is simple’ message undermines the need for political change and the support for long-term sustainable solutions.
Instead, voluntourism and short-term volunteering tend to operate outside of wider development policy and thinking. Despite good intentions, projects that operate in this way may not be really helpful – that newly dug well might actually encourage nomadic people to settle; a classroom gets built when what’s really needed is a health education programme. If tourists want to contribute, then they need to work in tandem with development agencies and governments.
Also, this new breed of volunteering tends to concentrate disproportionately on certain types of work and people, resulting in uneven development. Projects that involve children, for example, are more popular than those that involve adults (just look at the pictures that some volunteering agencies use in their advertising).
Finally, the way voluntourism programmes are evaluated is often on the basis of how satisfied the tourist was – rather than how much the host felt they gained.
Despite these criticisms, the answer is not to abandon all forms of volunteering. Instead, we should support those organisations that address these criticisms, operate in an ethical way and don’t solely prioritise the whims of the tourist.
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