Voluntourism: doing more harm than good?

Voluntourism: doing more harm than good?

When I was 18 years old, I travelled by myself
to Ghana to volunteer in an orphanage and teach children English for a month, naively
buying into the marketing of these programmes that my efforts would somehow help to change
the lives of these children for the better. voluntourism is one of the fastest-growing
trends in the tourism industry, and is a worldwide phenomenon, and although estimates of the
size of the industry vary, it is a multibillion-dolllar industry, with millions enlisting in these
programs each year. Of all the tourism subtypes, volontrouism is presented as the most noble
and meaningful, enabling the traveller to improve the lives of those less fortunate
than them. If you haven’t heard of it already, voluntourism essentially is “travel with
voluntary work, attracting individuals that are seeking a tourist experience that is mutually
beneficial, that will contribute not only to their personal development but also positively
and directly to the social, natural and/or economic environments in which they participate”.
This work commonly consists of building, painting or renovating houses or schools, teaching,
working at animal or environmental conservation, community support, or volunteering in orphanages,
and these volunteer placements typically last a few weeks to a few months.
The reason I want to make a video about this is because although it’s really admirable
that so many people seem to want to go abroad and help others and the majority of people
do have good intentions and there are certainly some forms of voluntourism some forms of voluntourism
that are very beneficial, the majority of research on voluntourism placements has found
that the majority of projects today actually does far more harm
than good. I’m not saying all voluntourism placements are bad and I’m not claiming to
be an expert on this or to fully understand all the complexities of voluntourism. But
I do want to share what I’ve recently learnt about this industry and also my own experiences
of this industry because I definitely felt like what I did caused much more harm than
good and I would like to prevent other people from potentially making the same mistakes Instead of highlighting the systemic changes
that need to be made to tackle poverty and inequality, responsibility is placed solely
in the hands of individual volunteers. This depoliticises voluntary work. It tackles short
term and individual issues, rather than tackling the root causes of structural inequalities.
Voluntourists are taught to think individualistically by the way in which Recruitment strategies
inundate volunteers with the way in which volunteering will benefit them personally
– focus on the benefit volunteering has for the individual, to improve their skills, or
become more employable – and tend to spend a great deal less time focusing on the actual
benefit volunteering has on the community. The problem with this is that the more we
as a society prioritise the benefit to the individual, rather than the collective, the
more we will prevent real change from coming about because less people will come together
in their communities to create change. Not only this, but the more it is used as a ‘’tool
of competition, to have a market advantage over other students’’, the more they take
on the mindset of a consumer. Young people are encouraged to consume volunteering. This
is worrying because you have to wonder about the motivation of the volunteers, if they
aren’t actually motivated to do good, will they actually do good. And this may end up
distorting people’s values – as you no longer do good for the sake of good, but only
if there is something to be gained from it. This undercuts what should be the real motivation
for volunteering. Instead of learning of the ways they can transform the system to make
sure we live more equally across the globe, or challenge the normalisation of mass inequality,
young people are learning that the way to give back to society is to have relative wealth
so that you are able to afford such excursions, and afford to ‘give back’. Voluntourism
reinforces the myth that poverty and inequality can be reduced as a result of expressions
of caring from rich white people. People often argue that voluntourism is able
to foster cross-cultural understanding and shared cultural exchange between nations.
But studies have found that common responses from voluntourists after returning from volunteering
is the belief that poverty and inequality are the result of bad luck, or the fault of
the country or the leaders, or it just happened that way. These responses show very little
understanding of the systems and policies which have fostered poverty and inequality,
such as colonisation, the period of de-colonisation, the precarious democratization process, the
development industry, World Bank and IMF loans/debt, structural adjustment, structural violence,
poverty traps, and neoliberal austerity. This prevents voluntourists from thinking critically
about how the west reproduces poverty and inequality. As a result voluntourists are
alleviated from any social responsibility to do anything to prevent or stop poverty
and inequality. It’s no surprise though that they have such
superficial understanding because, in most voluntourists programs, they aren’t required
to have any background knowledge of country, community, culture. Second, on voluntourism
websites, voluntourism industries often simplify the issue to market the experience as something
where anyone with good intentions can make a difference, even unskilled foreign people
who only come for short time periods. Through this, volunteers are led to imagine that their
engagement directly addresses suffering and sends the message that there are quick fixes
to big social issues and undermines the need for systemic change.
A further superficial understanding of poverty is that it’s common for volunteers to come
away feeling less sympathetic for poor people in their own countries because they believe
poverty in their own nations is less severe and easier for them to pull themselves out
of and therefore more of a choice they are making due to factors like a lack of hard
work. This binary thinking leads a lot of volunteers to miss the commonalities between
poverty and inequality in between nations, where shared structures of inequality and
violence can transcend borders. It therefore contributes to a superficial understanding
of poverty in both countries. Studies of volunteer programs find that young
volunteers will try and encourage children at volunteer programs that if they work hard
enough they too can succeed. It’s very much meritocratic thinking, that you can succeed
despite your circumstances, that opportunity exists for all, if only you are willing to
try hard enough. Structural inequality is essentially reframed as a question of individual
morality. here voluntourists are ignoring the fact that the job market of people in
these nations is often very different from the countries voluntourists come from and
ignores the structural, political, material restraints that can hinder this from happening.
And teaching children to internalise neoliberal messages of individualism and the protestant
way of thinking of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and that it is possible to
overcome poverty if you work hard enough . Voluntourists are more often than not given
tasks to do, such as building or refurbishing schools, digging wells or teaching, when they
aren’t in any way qualified to do these jobs. This can be pointless, because professionals
trained in these jobs in the community could do these types of jobs more effectively, efficiently
and with better safety than most voluntourists. This means there is very real risk that skilled
locals are forced into unemployment because unskilled volunteers are filling their positions,
and voluntourists run the risk of building unstable structures, costing the community
more resources, time, energy, than the volunteer has put in. Not only this, but often times
voluntourists simply by living in these communities will drain local resources such as food, accommodation,
water, that could be used on local people. You have to ask yourself, why are inexperienced,
untrained, ill-equipped people shipped to the other side of the world, paying to put
people who are better at the job, and are able to complete it in a faster and safer
manner, out of work? the orphanage I volunteered at, told us that
in the winter months when there were less volunteers, they highered local women to fulfil
the jobs that we as voluntourists did, and sacked them when more voluntourists came.
This meant that we were taking jobs from local women. Basically, we failed at the sole purpose
of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy,
and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work.
In other instances, volunteers come on conservation projects or other environmental projects not
questioning that the environmental footprint of their flights more often than not counteracts
the positive environmental impact of their conservation efforts. Another issue is that
most voluntourism industries are almost entirely controlled by foreign countries. this means
that most of the profit that could be used to build up local communities is lost to foreign
countries. Even if the money does get channelled to host countries. By creating a business
out of poverty, the voluntourism businesses don’t have an incentive to help the community
alleviate themselves out of poverty because if they did, they would lose money. And because
countries are financially benefitting from poverty and inequality, it may mean that governments
don’t have an incentive to stop poverty and deal with structural issues.
Voluntourists generally stay for only a week to a few months. This leads to a lack of long-term
planning in voluntourism projects, and often voluntourism organisations don’t work with
development organisations, meaning they may not actually be helpful. For example, some
people build schools, when what really is needed is not the building but to solve the
inherent educational issues in the area, such as having the funding for trained and qualified
teachers as staff for the school. They may dig a well, but this may encourage people
to settle in that area which may not be good. More than this, the fact that there are certain
types of volunteer programs that are more popular than others, such as orphanages, often
results in uneven development. Voluntourism can also be a form of neocolonialism. And Neocolonialism is a modern form of colonisation that isn’t
necessarily physical intrusion, but more discrete and subtle. So how is voluntourism neo-colonial?
First, is that it is commonly reported that voluntourism leads to a romanisation of poverty,
where it is believed that ‘’ material deprivation equates to social and emotional
wealth’’, or that poor people are pure during materialistic times of consumption,
in a commercialised world, again trivialising and depolitising poverty. I’m sure we all know of someone that comes back from voluntourism trip and comment on how happy locals are despite their poverty. This can be seen
as a form of neo-colonialism because this essentialised view can lead to orientalism
where the west portrays a romantic and essentially positive view of the developing world, and
this essentialised view is a mirror image of the colonialist romanisation of the Global
South. During colonial times, references were often
made to the Global South as the Garden of Eden, and their populations as primitive ‘’noble
savages’’ innocent of the ills of modern civilisation. During colonial times this romanticised depiction helped to secure the political,
economic, cultural and social domination of the West. In the same way, today, this romanticised
view helps to secure and justify poverty and inequality. Because even if they do show resilience to
poverty and inequality these issues need to be understood as social injustices. Yet this
depiction helps to justify or excuse or rationalise material inequality rather than questioning
it, because they are apparently happier as a result. So instead of focusing on why or how people
became poor, we instead focus on how apparently great the experience of poverty is for them.
This further depoliticises poverty, and doesn’t help to do anything to challenge the systems and processes that are leading some people to live in poverty. Some people argue
that the benefit of voluntourism is in creating faster or enhanced economic development. Aside
from the question of whether economic development or growth is actually a good thing socially and environmentally. Voluntourism can also create dependency from the host company on the volunteers by
cultivating reliant relationships, which may hinder economic development. And since the global economy and
tourist industry is changing all the time, any reliance is incredibly precarious
and not reliable at all. Another issue is that the binary thinking of the active givers of
the volunteers and passive receivers of the host countries, creates unequal power relationships,
it perpetuates the superiority of one group over the other, the west versus the rest.
Because there is the implicit assumption that some lives are for saving while others are
for being saved. When westerners are depicted as ‘experts’
or ‘teachers’ despite the fact that they don’t have the qualifications or experience
to justify these labels, this is a form of neo-colonialism because they’re presenting themselves
as culturally and racially superior, normalising a hierarchical complementary racial order.
In giving host nations meritocratic ideals of how to have a better life and in presenting themselves as expert or teacher, white people are considered to be the experts able
to lead them to a better life. A better life defined by western metrics. This superiority
is also reinforced by the way in which westerners are more often than not the people determining
how the volunteering will be structured. Through this, host countries become the objects of
the volunteers actions. This also reinforces neo-colonialism because it implores the Global South to unquestioningly
trust the “right” intentions and superior knowledge of the West. Such paternalistic
call to “trust us’’ replicates the power structures of colonial history. These ideas are also reinforced through the advertising of voluntourism companies.
Here host countries are often presented as ignorant, naïve, or
in need of western intervention. These images portray host countries as incapable of escaping
poverty and inequality without western intervention. This sets up a dichotomy between expectant
people in the Global South and a progressive North under whose leadership they will gradually
be freed for better things. This parallels imperialistic depictions that justified colonial
intervention of the Global South as a land of wild savages whom the benevolent hand of
the western white knight, Christianity and modernisation must rescue from a barbaric
condition. This also implicitly reifies the knowledge of westerners. Just as colonialists
often utilise these depictions to justify colonialist intervention, in the same way
some voluntourist companies utisise depictions of incapable, infantile developing nations
for their own financial gain. This understanding of poverty and how to save the countries is
very reminiscent of the white saviour complex and of the imperialistic policies during colonial
preiods, spending thousands of dollars to help/ fix a country. These negative depictions can
also propagate misrepresentations, inaccurate or distorted views of the developing world
which can lead to voluntourists engaging in cultural cannibalism or acting in a culturally
insensitive manner. The term cultural cannibalism refers to when
travellers both indirectly, directly, subconsciously and consciously – consume local culture but
simultaneously damage it with their behaviour. They do this by enforcing their own culture
onto host countries. Westerners often encourage,subconsciously or consciously host countries
to aspire to western ways of life, appearance, materialism or other factors. This can lead
them to decrease respect for elders and their traditions which could lead to a disintegration
of the host community. This is known as the demonstration effect – the way in which
host countries are impacted when they see the lifestyle and wealth of westerners, and
where these local people then begin adopting the style and behaviour of local people. More
than this, is host countries are aware that they are perceived as in need of salvation
by the west, this may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where they begin to believe themselves
to be in need of salvation, setting up and reinforcing dependency on the west. Many voluntourists
may therefore be encouraging local people to internalise colonisation or enforcing a
‘colonial mentality’ in the people in host nations, these terms refer to where people
are made to feel their own culture is somehow backwards, and corresponds with the belief
that the cultural values of the colonizer are inherently superior to one’s own. The lack of knowledge voluntourists have about
the culture, customs and traditions of host countries often can lead to them acting in
a culturally insensitive manner. One of the first things that happened when my volunteer
group of 10 or more people arrived, was taking 100s of pictures of the children. These vulnerable
and at-risk children were being treated as commodities or props for hundreds of photographs
for the social media accounts of some volunteers’’. In some cases it seemed that taking pictures
was more important than genuinely trying to do good, or help in the community. I’ve
even heard of people who take pictures of hospitalised children without their consent.
This is a form of imperialism because no one would dream of doing that in other developed
nations. Voluntourists are almost treating host nations as if it’s a walk-in safari,
commodifying their predicament. People in favour of voluntourism often say
that the real value of these experiences is in how it changes the tourist for the better.
But even if this positive impact serves to justify all the things that I’ve mentioned. There’s very little evidence that it has a lasting impact on voluntourists. For example, 1988 162 Americans travelled to Honduras to
build houses after Hurricane Mitch. A study found that years later, this work had made
no difference to their giving or volunteering. And even if the houses they built were built
well and did not break, they cost $30,000 apiece, including airfare, whilst locals could
build them for $2,000. This means that they could have built 15 times more houses if they
had contributed money instead of labour. I have only touched on the tip of the iceberg
here. There is a lot more to be said about foreign intervention, development aid, western
humanitarian intervention, about conservation voluntourism and animal voluntourism and animal voluntourism. And
I’m not saying all volunteering abroad is bad. If you possess specialised, sought after
skills, qualifications or experience, and if you can make sure it supports rather than
hinders job creation and there is a genuine focus on international and cross-cultural
understanding and learning, I am sure you can be a great asset to host countries.
But it’s important to ask yourself what your true motivations are, what you really
have to offer, who will really benefit, and if the money you spend on the trip would be
better served in a donation or supporting a political cause rather than going abroad,
or if your voluntary work would be better served in your communities at home. And if
you do go abroad, I hope that you might take the time to learn about the political, economic,
cultural and social histories of where you’re visiting and think of it as a shared cultural
exchange to generate knowledge and respect. If you have already been abroad my aim is
not to make you feel terrible for what you did. Ultimately what I am trying to say with
this video is that I think it’s important that instead of individualistic, depoliticised
action such as voluntourism, we all think instead about community- driven, collective
political activism that challenges systemic issues, questioning things like why we live
in a system that allows 8 men to have as much wealth as the poorest 50 per cent of the wealth,
rather than focusing on the symptoms of the problem.
I would encourage everyone to think critically about the ways in which colonisation, the
period of de-colonisation, the precarious democratization process, the development industry,
World Bank and IMF loans/debt, structural adjustment, our cultural understanding of
what it means to do good, structural violence, poverty traps, and neoliberal austerity have
produced poverty and inequality and continue to do so today. And think critically about
how we can challenge these factors. Thank you for watching, please like, share
and subscribe if you want to.

20 thoughts on “Voluntourism: doing more harm than good?

  1. In this video I only briefly mentioned the problems associated with meritocracy. Peter Coffin has a great video on this that explains this in far more depth which I would highly recommend: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GT2iU9pAI_Y

    I originally talked far more about the many problems with orphanage voluntourism, but the video would have been far too long. So if you're interested in this, I would highly recommend this TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3nPMWkhbMI

  2. I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject? Do you agree/ disagree with any of the points that I have made? Are there any important points worth addressing that I haven't mentioned?

  3. Good video! Voluntouring isn't something I've given much thought to. Keep it up. I'm hoping to see your channel grow 🙂

  4. Everyone who wants to go abroad and help: go and help Rojava. It helps a lot if you go there and help building up the country. Help making Rojava green again. If you want to get more informations on Rojava and what you can do go to http://internationalistcommune.com/join-the-revolution/ and http://internationalistcommune.com/the-internationalist-commune/

  5. I really like the effort and work you put into this channel, you're clearly growing. One small complaint though: as a non-native speaker I have a hard time with hearing you. I'm not really sure whether it's the mic or your pronounciation.

    I fully agree with you, a friend of mine made a similar trip and was disgusted by how highly western people thought of themselves for being to "generous" to poor people. This individualistic mindset does not help the local folks at all.

  6. This is an under recognized and important issue which needs to be raised. Everything is connected and everything we choose to do leaves another thing undone. What we all need, and what people in impoverished parts of the world need with urgency is agency to alter their own circumstances. The IMF and the World Bank have institutionalized inter-generational poverty through out the lesser developed world and US foreign policy has foreclosed on all hope of genuine self determination. Years ago my life intersected with the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua after traveling there to do some missionary work after the Christmas earthquake in 1972. As was your experience, we did more harm than good, and a decade later the work we started was still undone mostly because of more pressing needs. Years later, after the revolution, I met up with some of the people I met in Amsterdam for a Billy Graham World Youth Crusade. These folks were full of hope and purpose because they thought for the first time in their lives they were creating their own future. Of course that future has had its ups and downs but it has been theirs to create. I fear for my comrades in Venezuela because to alleviate their suffering will require the overturn of the regime in Washington not Caracas.
    Well look at the time, all I really wanted to say was….time well spent.

  7. Definitely would rather help translate revolutionary documents into English or recent revolutionary communications from current English-language activism into their language (or be an interpreter for inter-language coalitions), or cook meals or transport items for political activists while they do their work (as long as they weren't planning on paying anyone local for the same tasks).

  8. Nice video. An approach to explaining which doesn't come off as condescending or bombastic as sometimes we may see, but instead very approachable – certainly the sort of thing you could show to someone to change their mind., especially given the opening focused on your experience.

    However, a Note:

    Why is the symbol of the International Commune in Rojava, of the Kurdish Liberation Movement, used in the thumbnail? The foreign volunteers in Rojava doing civil work aren't 'voluntourists.'

    Shout out:


  9. Great video. Covers most of the problems I have with this phenomena. I know from personal experience how internalized white supremacy is in ex-colonial countries, where a christian name and white skin is seen as a mark of competency. The whole concept is extremely toxic. Honestly the best thing people could do for developing countries is to lobby their own governments to forgive the debts of these countries.

  10. Totally agree with the points you make. Personally, I have had one volunteering experience so far, on the lookout (with binoculars, telescope and nocturnal vision equipment during night shifts) for refugee boats trying to arrive to Lesvos island from Turkey. Without being as flagrant as other cases, I believe that it is hard not to see some degree of 'voluntourism' in that experience. To begin with, the name of the organization (Refugee Rescue). I mean, I get that it succintly captures the whole point of the NGO, but the 'white saviour complex' is impossible to miss. I was there during the summer of 2017, at a time when few boats were arriving, so that also contributed to feeling like I wasn't doing that much to help. During the three weeks I was there, the availability of student-aged volunteers (clearly not the case during the winter) meant that I had a 6 to 9 hour look-out shift every two days or so, which meant that I had plenty of time to enjoy the 'tourism' / holiday part of it, summertime in a beautiful Greek island, going to the beach, socializing, taking time to write a personal diary… I was even able to feel the weight of privilege/injustice when I took a 15€ ferry to Turkey for a day-trip, while people on the other side were waiting to risk their lives to cross, after paying thousands for a rubber dinghy and an engine, much more for a trip on a smuggler speedboat.

    I did feel helpful when I spent a day cleaning the beach, full of objects washed up ashore, rubber dinghies that had been used by refugees to arrive to Europe fragmented into tiny plastic pieces. I also felt somewhat helpful during a couple days I was at a transitory camp, helping in any possible way and talking to the Syrian refugees who had just arrived (the engine in control of a self-confident/arrogant teenager, imagine how desperate these people are to cross the strait to put their families lives in the hands of a kid, a rubber dinghy, an engine and the forces of nature). Over my three weeks, I participated in one 'landing', when a smuggler (who was then caught by Greek coastguards) dropped 17 Afghan migrants (including a 40-day old baby, a pregnant woman, and two elderly people in bad medical condition) in the early hours of the morning. I did help in easing their first hours on European soil, in calming them, in reaching out for help. But questions remained once I left Lesvos. Had I been part of the solution through my volunteering? Could the 750€ I spent on flights/living costs have been better spent? Should I be satisfied with the fact that there had been so few 'landings', meaning that less people were crossing the waters, or should I be dissatisfied because that meant that the Turkish coastguards were being more restrictive after the deal with the EU, or by the fact that I hadn't been able to help that much? In any case, it certainly was a personally edifying experience, but then we're just falling into the individualist trap.

    Great job Katie!

  11. This is really educational. Some of the issues you raise I was previously familiar with. The environmental impact of conservation voluntourism was the main thing I expected to hear upon reading the video title. And the problem of encouraging individualistic, market-centered solutions, where systemic changes are needed, is similar to issues I've heard Anand Giridharadas talk about.

    But I learned a lot of new things here, too. The creation of local unemployment and the perpetuation of colonial/imperial systems. The way volutourism can erode sympathy for the impoverished people in one's home country and discourage the solidarity of impoverished people across the world. Really eye-opening for me.

    I wonder whether you think the possibility exists for international volunteer efforts to function as dual power structures or mutual aid organizations.

  12. Hey, could you make subtitles? Even turning on automatic ones, that don't require pretty much any work, would be helpful. Tried to send this to a friend of mine that isn't fully fluent in english, and she can't really keep up fully.

  13. I have some hopefully constructive criticism on your videos in general to make them more watchable/listenable.

    Please leave a second or two between sentences. Your entire video sounds like a run-on sentence. Speaking quickly is not a problem but you are monotonous and that paired with no breaks makes it difficult to either understand or even want to understood what you’re saying. This might just be your speaking style but I think it’s exacerbated by your editing.

    I can see the majority of people clicking away from your videos just because of this.

    You might think this is the best way to go about it otherwise your video would be extremely long. But even as someone who watches the majority of youtube on 2x speed, I can’t keep up with you because there are no natural pauses. It causes listener fatigue.

    Please consider this criticism as advice to make your videos better, not as an attack on you. Your ideas are good but they are not being allowed to shine.

  14. Really good video. I also volunteered abroad in an orphanage after I finished uni, and the culture of volunteerism left me feeling terrible and guilty for having been part of it.

  15. Great video! I was hoping to hear a about Rojava from the thumbnail but I see what you meant by putting that in the thumbnail

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