By: Sarah Stone
I was hired as an intern with Peace Corps Headquarters as a 19-year-old college freshman. I knew I wanted to work there, if not volunteer later, and was completely ignorant of this entire other sector of private service abroad programs—ones we call voluntourism projects.
Eight years later, I’ve built a good chunk of my career on volunteering abroad, having tried to learn everything I can about international volunteering, and to share with you what I’ve found. What started as a fascination quickly became disgust, and a desire to help build the industry for the better.
Ayako Ezaki of The International Ecotourism Society wrote to me recently, asking if I might be able to respond to recent sobering reports about the voluntourism industry, and specifically, orphanage voluntourism. Here’s my take.
Within weeks of being hired at Peace Corps, I became aware of the term voluntourism, a word that made me cringe. I imagined untrained, Western travelers gawking at developing communities, planting trees for an hour, and then patting themselves on the back as they sat in an air conditioned hotel room far away from the uncomfortable realities of an impoverished country. My coworkers didn’t have a more favorable opinion either.
After spending almost every day of the past eight years immersed in volunteer abroad research, best practices, volunteer support, and even serving overseas myself—this is still the image that word provokes in my mind.
I founded a volunteer abroad research company that later started sending hard-skill volunteers overseas. Our team always used the words “volunteer abroad” or “volunteer travel,” partly because of the poison the word “voluntourism” carries. It’s a word championed by some and spit out with a sneer by others.
For at least ten years, I’ve seen a minimum of one article per month using the phrase, “so-called voluntourism trips.” The “so-called” is used on purpose—regardless of whether the writer is new to the concept or well acquainted with it, “voluntourism” a terrible word, and one that very few people have taken seriously since it popped up over a decade ago.
Each year, like clockwork, members of the media grab on to the word “voluntourism,” and they don’t let go until it’s mangled. Questions like, “Does ‘voluntourism’ do more harm than good?” and, “Are ‘voluntourists’ selfish or selfless?” or, “Who really benefits from ‘voluntourism?’” crop up in blogs, magazines, and newspapers.
And these are serious issues that need to be addressed. But time and again, we see the questions posed with the intent to stir up conversation, not come to a resolution. And how can we? The issues aren’t black and white. We can’t call every volunteer either selfish or selfless; we can’t say all of the work volunteers do abroad is always good or always bad; and we can’t say that on every project, volunteers always benefit or the community always benefits.
Last spring, the subject reached Al Jazeera, which hosted this eye-opening segment into the orphanage voluntourism industry, as well as other concerning stories. I watched the video, frantically scrawling notes on my whiteboard, mumbling, “Thank you!” and “Freakin’ finally!” as the hosts and guests noted…well, many of the points that volunteer abroad researchers like ourselves have been shouting from the mountaintops for years.
So let’s go over some questions that were raised, and that are often raised, in hard-hitting stories about volunteering abroad.
Does Volunteering Abroad Cause More Harm than Good?
This is one of the most popular questions posed to the industry—from college newspapers to bloggers to international news agencies. There’s no clear-cut answer; it depends on the volunteer and the organization he works with, regardless of whether he’s with a host group or with a placement group.
In May 2012, I had the opportunity to visit the PAW Cat Sanctuary in Belize, an organization that depends on international volunteers for its survival.
PAW was founded to spay, neuter, and care for cats on Caye Caulker, Belize—a community that culturally perceives these animals as pests. Madi Collins was raised in Caye Caulker, and founded the program over 10 years ago to get cats off of the streets and into a safe shelter.
Because volunteerism isn’t part of the culture in Belize, and because in her words, “Even if we pay [locals], they won’t do it. They don’t see the point,”she depends on volunteers to provide daily care both for the cats and the cattery in which they live, as well as to provide professional veterinary assistance for the animals.
Every cent that Madi’s volunteers pay for their housing (the only fee required by the program) is used directly to provide food, shelter, and veterinary care for the cats. She’s also had amazing volunteers, one of whom I had the pleasure of meeting, that love the organization’s mission, love the work they do, and that contribute their time, expertise, and even tangible donations to help further the project’s goals.
Asking whether volunteering does more harm than good is an interesting question, but not one that can be answered in any simple capacity. The cat program itself poses no harm to the community, the volunteers don’t take jobs away from locals, and there’s no agenda other than “Get these cats spayed and neutered, and into a safe place if they’re injured or sick.”
But using the orphanage voluntourism example from the Al Jazeera report, there absolutely are awful places operating worldwide to meet the demand that volunteers have to travel, but not meet any demand for effective childcare and development—to learn a bit more about this issue, read my article on GO! Overseas about orphanage volunteering. [2021 note: unfortunately in the past few years, GO! Overseas purged many of their older articles, including mine. The gist was, “Why you shouldn’t volunteer abroad in orphanages.” I still stand by that statement.]
Are Volunteers Selfish or Selfless?
Who cares? We should ask instead, “Does a volunteer’s work benefit the community? Does it further the mission of the organization with which he works?”
Who cares whether someone takes a volunteer trip because he wants to see the world, and volunteering is an inexpensive (if you know where to look) way to do it? Or because he honestly loves the work a particular group does and wants to focus completely on that? If he’s not hurting anyone or their property, who cares about his reasons for volunteering?
Yes: a volunteer that signs up for a project expecting to change the world in a week, and then that actively refuses to budge from this viewpoint, will do little to actually help the project. And volunteers that don’t do their research or ask the right questions play a huge part in hurting their host communities over the long term. But that’s not a question of intent—it’s an education issue.
The “privileged white volunteer” stereotype exists, absolutely! But we seem to never look beyond it and see how that person may change through the duration of his project, or even for years afterward. We don’t look at the actual work he’s doing, such as helping with an ongoing agriculture program, and instead scoff at the “I’m better than you, richer than you, and smarter than you” attitude that we assume all international volunteers have.
This isn’t to put volunteer organizations on a pedestal either. I’ve had both terrible and amazing experiences volunteering overseas and within my own community. Sometimes it’s been due to my own preconceptions or misunderstandings (and I’ve for sure seen volunteers embarrass the project and their fellow volunteers), and at other times, it’s because the group I worked with was poorly operated, misguided in their work, or disillusioned with their lack of progress.
Some of my friends have volunteered abroad and come back disappointed and confused with the lack of structure, support, or training, and it wasn’t their fault; it was the organization’s failing. Both volunteers and the organizations they work with can make a negative impact. Pretending the “selfish versus selfless” issue is anything other than a lazy title used for clicks is a joke. But we’ll never see it go away.
Who Really Benefits from Voluntourism?
This builds on the points made in those last two sections—it depends on the volunteer and the organization he works with—as well as the engagement of the host community.
If a volunteer benefits from his trip, then that’s wonderful! He might be inspired to come back for another stint, to donate to the project, to get involved in his own community, and encourage others to serve abroad. He can gain valuable experience not only for his education and career, but also for his personal worldview.
Where it gets sticky is if only one or the other benefits from the project. Volunteers should benefit from their experience. It’s disturbing to hear people talk about whether a host community should gain from the project alone; it’s dehumanizing to the men and women that work alongside them.
Saying whether a community should gain as much as or more than the volunteer working on the project is entirely subjective. I quit my job at Peace Corps and tirelessly worked to get my volunteer abroad company off the ground because of a single service trip—one that I know helped the community in which I was placed, and that inspired me to keep doing good in creative ways. I still think I gained more than my host country counterparts did from that experience, but I also absolutely did not work to the detriment of the community.
Considering those points, we should ask instead,“How does the community benefit from voluntourism?”
Far too many volunteer abroad organizations don’t engage their community effectively, don’t provide local solutions to local problems, and don’t monitor and evaluate their programs either due to ignorance, lack of care, or decreased manpower and budget. They’re not sustainable, and they give well-meaning, well-operated programs a tarnished name simply because they too accept international volunteers to further their mission.
This brings me to the idea that sparked this article in the first place: what about orphanage voluntourism?
Last spring, as I watched the Al Jazeera coverage of orphanage voluntourism in Cambodia, I couldn’t contain my excitement—I stopped the video to welcome my boyfriend home from work, and then jabbered for 20 minutes about excited I was to see the awful effects of orphanage tourism dredged up by someone outside of the voluntourism industry itself.
Rather than repeating it, I’ll link my original article on orphanage volunteering, which covers what to look out for, why I don’t recommend you go in the first place, and if you still really want to do it, how to get started in finding a reputable program. But I still strongly, strongly, strongly recommend you don’t volunteer in an orphanage at all. [Note: link has since gone dead – sorry!]
Here’s one thought that I want to leave you with about orphanage tourism: While a volunteer might think, “Ah, I’m leaving a bright spot in this child’s otherwise miserable life,” the children in turn see a constant stream of untrained or even unvetted visitors (which can result in tragic or even horrific outcomes) singing the ABCs, giving hugs, and leaving behind crayons and coloring books. It’s not helpful. That’s not the education they need, and by sending a revolving door of volunteer travelers to work in orphanages, these children are not receiving long-term care from qualified individuals, and they’re not being provided the resources necessary to grow.
And if you haven’t seen it yet, please watch this 36-minute video, which brings up incredibly important points that must be addressed in orphanage tourism—and even volunteer travel in general.
If you volunteer abroad, your experience is your own, and what you make of it. It’s your responsibility to find the program that works for you and that’s doing some great work in their community; educate yourself about the issues, about the organizations both large and small working to address those issues, and then find a way to work with them. Regardless of your reason for volunteering, going about it in a smart, well informed way will make all the difference—for yourself, for your host group, and for your host community.