Exploring the value of voluntourism

(Graphic by Wade Thompson)

Perspectives on volunteering abroad are as diverse as the organizations that facilitate it and the countries who host it. A highly contested contribution to global development, voluntourism is an example of this type of exchange and an increasingly common way of exploring international volunteering.

The divergence between those who believe in the enormous opportunity for good and others who focus on the potential for harm has created a wide debate about the impacts of voluntourism. It has also generated a number of questions to consider for those looking into the experience to consider.

Is it more about travelling or volunteering? Are the projects done in a way that is ethical and sustainable for host communities? Who serves to benefit the most from voluntourism — organizations, volunteers or the ‘voluntoured’?

It’s a passionate and frustrating debate, but it is one which has become increasingly important as voluntourism has gained popularity.

But what exactly is “voluntourism”? And what distinguishes it from other forms of volunteering abroad?

“International development volunteering is much more focused on a specific intent, it’s much more focused on the volunteer work than having the vacation portion of it integrated,” offered Ruth MacKenzie, the president and CEO of Volunteer Canada. “They’re kind of two niches of the same thing.”

Put simply, “it’s fairly broad, just a combination of traditional tourism with volunteer work,” said Lindsay Morris, a graduate of the international development program at the University of Guelph.

Morris participated in two trips with Habitat for Humanity during her undergraduate degree, leading one, and did some independent work in Botswana as well.

For some though, the definition isn’t as clear. There is a high level of variance amongst organizations of the balance between work and touristic endeavours. This blurs the line between more idealist perspectives compared to those who view it in a more negative light.

“I feel like there’s a really large scale for voluntourism and you have some that it’s like volunteering with a little bit of tourism, and then you can definitely have the opposite,” said Preston Taylor, a fourth-year global studies student at Wilfrid Laurier University.

While Taylor spent two months volunteering with an eco-farming project in India this past summer and was aware of his organization being considered a voluntourism opportunity, the experience was intended to have a greater focus on work with travel opportunities on weekends.

Taylor acknowledged that one type of experience isn’t necessarily superior to another.

“Really it depends on what you’re trying to get out of it,” he said.

Volunteers or customers?

While organizations facilitating voluntourism may have altruistic motives and positive intentions, something that may be forgotten is the fact that most are operating with some kind of business model.

That model may be for the purpose of generating profit or simply allowing more volunteers to partake in the experience. This can result in experiences that direct their initiatives more toward volunteer desires than community needs, which is also a strong source of criticism against voluntourism.

“I suppose since it technically is a product that they’re purchasing,  since they often pay quite a hefty amount to participate in these projects, [voluntourists] do want to receive customer satisfaction, basically,” said Morris. “So I can see how it’s tempting and almost justifiable for the voluntourist organizations to succumb to the wants and needs of the voluntourists as a way to ensure ongoing business for themselves.”

She went on to explain how these types of trips are perceived and rewarded by Western societies and how this might impact the reasoning for engaging in an international volunteering experience. “It looks good on a resume, it looks good on a scholarship application … because participating in this kind of trip supposedly indicates a certain level of good character, when really I think that’s quite questionable,” Morris said. “It becomes quite a feel good thing for [volunteers].”

International experiences can cost thousands of dollars, including flights, accommodations, insurance and other associated expenses. There is a lot of discrepancy on how funds are distributed in organizations, from direct financial support for communities, to staff costs and volunteer support.

Taylor, elaborating on his experience, said that there were mixed benefits to the community and the volunteers.

“It was less about trying to fix a problem than it was making sure people liked the trip. Because it’s still a business … it stops being about what the people really need and it starts becoming about what the volunteers need, which is not the point,” he said.

As an educator trying to develop meaningful learning abroad opportunities for university students, Joanne Benham Rennick, a professor of contemporary studies at Laurier Brantford, recalled organizations who were willing to develop opportunities in accordance with what students were looking for. While flexibility may be a positive attribute, this indicated to her that there was a lack of a sustainable, grassroots initiative in place that they could contribute to.

“The company they go with wants to make money by having them there but it doesn’t necessarily have a job for them,” she said. “Those are not helpful exchanges. Those are not beneficial to the student or the community.”

Getting the full picture

Determining which organizations have models suited to your personal standards is a matter of digging beneath the polished surface of voluntourism advertisements. Beyond choosing what to do and where, there are additional moral considerations which may factor into decision-making and complicate the process. And with the plethora of options available to someone planning an excursion, evaluating different opportunities can be overwhelming.

MacKenzie emphasized the amount of research that should be done to evaluate the suitability of organizations and the need to understand in what context volunteering is being coordinated.

“You want to make sure that you’re doing things that are ethical, that the projects you’re engaging in are sustainable, that there’s value in it beyond the value of making a monetary donation,” she said.

“It’s not just about finding a way for people to engage, but it needs to be making a contribution and making a difference in a real way.”

Part of this may include determining the types of power relationships that exist and whether an egalitarian arrangement is being created.

Morris believes that the power often sits disproportionately in the hands of volunteers or the organizations by choosing what gets done and on what timeline. Locals, in this context, are passive actors who don’t get to have a strong voice in determining how change is created in their society.

“Really it should be decided by the local organization because they have the knowledge of what the real need is and what is realistic to accomplish in a certain time period,” she asserted.

Laurier grad  Alanna Wallace, who works as a project manager in South Africa with voluntourism organization African Impact, said that to her, criticism is understandable. “I’ve seen organizations in the communities we work in who maybe aren’t culturally sensitive and aren’t practicing sustainable development,” she recalled.

According to Wallace, focusing on the education of the local community is one way to ensure that projects are viable.

“That’s the thing about sustainable development and an organization that practices sustainable development is, hopefully. When all of our goals are accomplished, we work ourselves into being obsolete,” she explained. “It’s something we tell the volunteers — hopefully one day we won’t be needed here anymore.”

A big part of this for Me to We speaker and leadership facilitator Andrea McPhedran, is ensuring that the organization has a strong connection with locals and takes time to understand their needs. Me to We, which was co-created by Marc and Craig Kielburger, arranges volunteer trips for youth.

“A lot of the staff that we employ on the ground are actually from the country,” she said. “It helps with relationship building at the beginning and then I think it helps in continuing the strong relationships.”

While volunteers may come and go, some organizations do have staff that live permanently in the area and contribute consistently to projects.

Thinking critically

A defining component of many voluntourism experiences is the short-term nature of trips, which makes it easier for larger numbers of people to contribute. Whether or not a volunteer can engage with underlying issues and make a real impact during the span of a few weeks or months is an important consideration for volunteers and organizations alike.

Taylor argues that most trips aren’t set up to have volunteers engage at a high level with a region’s underlying problem. “It’s not a space for critical thinking, it’s mainly just a space for reinforcing old stereotypes. They don’t want to make the volunteer feel uncomfortable by saying ‘these are problems that you are causing,’” he said.

The education and discussion opportunities that take place while learning abroad or during a voluntourism experience can be highly impactful in addressing this.

At the root of whether the positives outweigh the negatives of an experience is if “students have an opportunity to be really prepared,” according to Benham Rennick. She suggested that courses can be useful for those taking trips through school settings.

Benham Rennick added that experiences can be more positive “when they have a lot of opportunities to reflect on why they’re going and what they’re doing and when they are taught to have a sense of their own smallness in the experience … that they’re going simply to learn from other people.”

McPhedran believes that volunteers can develop a deep, contextual understanding, even in the span of a few weeks, when a framework is in place for discussion and learning.

“We do a lot and we talk about it. And that’s kind of the important thing, that leadership and that education piece we never let slide,” she explained.

For those who advocate for travelling abroad as a way of learning about and addressing global issues, short-term engagements may be unavoidable. With the exception of those doing gap years, most students have at maximum, a summer break that spans just a few months, to engage in these types of experiences.

“Organizations that have done a good job in adapting their volunteer programs to fit volunteers looking for those shorter term opportunities are the ones that are going to be making a difference,” said MacKenzie.

Positivity in the face of criticism

While moral and ideological incentives have been used as a criticism of voluntourism, those are also arguments made in favour of the potential benefits of voluntourism trips. These motivations may come from a desire for cross-cultural exchange or to improve the quality of life for people facing greater hardship than those in wealthier societies, amongst other considerations.

“Having a renewed appreciation, having a better understanding of what the majority of the world endures and the incredible amount of community they have,” are ways in which volunteers will benefit from these experiences, said McPhedran.

She continued, “The trip isn’t the end of a journey, it’s really just the start. The start of becoming a global citizen, the start of seeing that world and understanding that you have a part to play.”

Opportunities for engaging with local issues and people, something that isn’t coordinated by every organization, can also create relationships that may spark deeper levels of involvement.

Wallace said that “because of the contacts that I made,” she felt a connection to the placement and was encouraged to return to continue addressing existing problems.

Additionally, while the impact may vary, it can also be a highly formative learning experience for volunteers. For Taylor, though he wasn’t entirely satisfied with the experience, he did see some benefits to the local population and it helped him realize where his skills and interests could best be utilized.

“That experience kind of made me want to work with maybe a more local organization because working abroad is a lot more problematic than I originally thought,” he said.

“I don’t think we can write off voluntourism altogether,” added Morris. “If going on one of these trips … gets [volunteers] thinking and gets them onto a path of pursuing development studies or something like that, perhaps that is worth it.”

An undefined experience

The ambiguity of voluntourism makes its effectiveness difficult to evaluate. For each critique or benefit raised, there is an example of an organization that doesn’t match these considerations. Differing priorities of organizations complicates what may seem like a simple desire to help others.

Perhaps, however, where the initiative can start is at home. At the root of the learning experience volunteers can have when travelling, according to McPhedran, is a realization that “we’ve got to change how we live here to better meet the abilities for everyone around the world.”

Where, and in what way you decide to impact the world is limitless.

Choose wisely.

Leave a Reply