Why Voluntourism May Be Doing More Harm Than Good

Volunteer work of any sort is almost immediately applauded by many. You will very rarely see someone frowning upon an act of kindness, right?

Volunteering is considered to be a bold and courageous act as you are often giving more than you are receiving. Volunteers usually do not get any monetary incentive in return for their help. But on the contrary, people who have engaged in these activities have said that it is an experience money cannot buy. It makes one more aware of the different realities apart from your own and motivates you to do more. 

It may sound like a simple task – visiting an orphanage or a remote village; engaging in community work for a couple of hours; then leaving with all smiles, but there is more to it than all that.

What Is ‘Voluntourism’?

Voluntourism - Volunteers in Romania

Overseas volunteer programmes have become more popular in the past years. With that, a term for it has even been created. ‘Voluntourism’ is a combination of the words ‘volunteer’ and ‘tourism’. It essentially means participating in volunteer work that also is a vacation on the side. It’s almost like the new backpacking and has become a travel trend on its own. Let’s face it – travelling while doing good, what’s not to love?

The spectrum of volunteer activities has expanded extensively, providing potential volunteers with a wide array of options to choose from. Some of them include healthcare; education; wildlife and animal care; community development; environment and conservation, and elderly care. Depending on the volunteer’s personal advocacy, they can choose which project they would like to embark on. 

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly 

Volunteer programmes are packaged as this ‘authentic experience’ to interact and help underprivileged communities and lend a helping hand. More often than not, people embark on these volunteer trips to do good. While they are not wrong, this humanitarian pursuit also has flaws of its own. 

‘A One-time Thing’

One of the things that makes voluntourism attractive is the time commitment. You can volunteer for a day, a week, or even a month – it is your call to make. However, while this may be a one-time thing for volunteers, this may cause more negative impacts than good ones in the long run. 

In many cases, volunteers do not stay long enough to fully understand the underlying problem that the respective communities are facing. Well-intentioned volunteers come in and offer to help for a week, but that doesn’t mean it will make a huge impact in a month’s time.

“It’s very romantic in the TV and movies. They think it’s flying in for a weekend. They need to think of it in terms of months”, said Suzanne H. Brooks, Director of Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI).

Volunteer organizations should push for more long-term effects than short-term ones. While there are no signs of stopping for the voluntourism industry, follow-up visits and monitoring can be useful for the communities. Remember – intention doesn’t always mean impact.

Creating Dependency

Paint this picture in your head. You and a group of volunteers go to a remote village to help out the community for half a day. You distribute food to them and give hampers that consist of basic necessities that could last for a week or two. Take a few pictures and say your goodbyes. But what happens after you leave? 

This may create a cycle of over-dependence amongst recipient communities. For some underprivileged communities in poor villages, the problem is the lack of skills and employment. This may cause them to become too reliant on volunteer groups that come in to help and provide them with momentary aid. Thus, long-term problems need long-term solutions.

There is nothing wrong with humanitarian travel and voluntourism. Yes, it still benefits these communities one way or another. However, a more sustainable work model needs to be developed for the benefit of both volunteers and especially the recipients. Equip them with skills that will enable them to create their own businesses and be in charge of their own livelihoods.

Communities that are on the receiving end should not be seen as charities. They don’t need your sympathy; they need your empathy. A one-time food drive may help these people for a day, but teaching them how to make their own crops and food could feed them for a lifetime. 

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