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Voluntourism: the (Not So) Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Updated: Mar 11, 2021

Irisa R. and Mariam H.

Graphic by The Pvblication

We were fresh out of school, eager to help with the best intentions. We came across a volunteer program promising us that we too could play a part.

What is Voluntourism?

In its simplest sense, “voluntourism” is defined as tourists holidaying with the purpose of volunteering. However it has rapidly morphed into a more sinister practice in which organisations sell the feeling of volunteering and so, fill their own pockets by profiting off the communities they claim to help. This industry has quickly become one of the most booming markets within travel. It’s so appealing to choose a relatively easy-looking project when it fits your time frame, budget and your interests. Yet it begs the question: why and how are thousands of these projects tailored to our needs?

Voluntourism is an issue that is very close to us because we know that we’ve participated in it before. We have both volunteered with two different aid organisations that we later realised were deeply unethical and grounded firmly in the insidious practice of capitalising on the vulnerabilities of the communities they professed to help. There are a few big voluntourism organisations like IVHQ, Projects Abroad and Antipodeans. But these should not overshadow the thousands of grassroots organisations who are sustainably and skillfully navigating the terrain of humanitarian aid. For tips on how to distinguish between them, skip to the final section.

Graphic by The Pvblication

Exploitation of Good Intentions

With the rise of social media, news of conflict reaches us instantly with visceral clarity. With so many faces and stories, we feel more accountable to affected communities around the world. The tourism industry has recognised this desire to help and began to sell us the feeling of ‘helping’ in a pretty package. They brand it with hallmark - style slogans like ‘memories for a lifetime,’ ‘no special skill required’ and ‘have a holiday and make a change.’

Many of these organisations offer everything from teaching English, conservation and building houses to art and music. This list of credentials, when first encountered, can be seen as a badge of legitimacy signifying that they have enough resources to fulfill every need. I remember finding IVHQ particularly alluring because it had this pseudo-professionalism. However, think about it: no one trusts a restaurant with three different cuisines on the menu. So, why are we so willing to trust organisations that claim to do everything?

In these situations, donations are often absorbed by the parent organisations and there are little to no significant sustainable developments seen in the actual communities being ‘aided’. For example, if a conservation project is focused on collecting garbage but the goal isn’t to build a waste disposal system, then what is the meaningful outcome? It’s not a coincidence that the largest players in this space are all organisations based in some of the wealthiest cities in the world, like London, Auckland and Sydney. The legitimacy of these organisations is rooted in the ‘logic’ that the western voluntourist’s presence is valuable just by modelling their way of life.

Experiences with IVHQ:

The Unqualified Volunteer

Irisa: Three years ago, I went on a volunteer trip with IVHQ to Fiji, with the purpose of teaching English to children in local schools. When I arrived I realised how underfunded and underpaid most of the local workers were. I remember doing the math and concluding, “If I, along with forty other people (just for those two weeks), paid $900AUD, that adds up to almost $36000 AUD. So where is the money going?”

It soon became clear that we were expected to design lesson plans. I remember thinking I’m not qualified, I’m not even a teacher! At first I was enamoured by the fact that every volunteer was from a different discipline. Some studying to be a doctor or an engineer, a lawyer or a musician. But later on I realised; did any of us have the qualifications to adequately fulfill the role of a teacher? No. Or a construction worker? No. A conservationist? No.

Only months later did I realise that my time there had actually served to uphold a system that was unsustainable and dangerous. If you don’t have the skills to teach English, construct buildings or administer medical care in your home country then you shouldn’t be doing it anywhere else. Without having skilled teachers, the students would never benefit from a cohesive syllabus. Without qualified construction workers, the houses being built might never be structurally sound.

Graphic by The Pvblication

Poverty Porn

While other forms of travel sell relaxation or adventure, voluntourism sells poverty. In 2013, a study by Mostafanezhad found that eighty percent of voluntourists are concerned with the 'authenticity' of their experiences. Basically, the more poverty they see, the more they believe their experiences are beneficial and real. In development-orientated programs, poverty is viewed as ‘cultural immersion’ and in doing so the commodification of this experience is disguised.

The South African Human Resources Research Council reported that the intense demand by voluntourists to visit "HIV orphans" led to a spike in the number of "unstable and unregulated orphanages". The report continues on to mention how children are being cruelly removed from their families in order to maintain “a stock of orphanages” for willing tourists to visit. The situation became so dire in Cambodia that UNICEF urged people to stop volunteering with children in orphanages.

A terrifying recent example is the story of Renee Bach. An American who pretended to be a trained doctor in Uganda for 10 years under a nonprofit that she founded called, ‘Serving His Children’. She did not have a degree in Medicine or any tertiary education that qualified her to administer healthcare. Therefore, her ‘treatments’ and ‘surgeries,’ maimed and murdered hundreds of Ugandan children and is the most extreme example in recent times of criminal behaviour masking itself as charitable work.

Experiences with ProjectsAbroad; my Uni said it was fine

Mariam: In the summer of 2018, I volunteered in Cambodia with ProjectsAbroad as part of my Health Science degree. My university enforced a few barriers of entry so that I couldn’t engage in projects outside of my qualifications. However, once there I noticed there were newly graduated high school students allowed to participate in the same program.

We had trained local staff who had the necessary skills to provide the actual assistance, I was really more of a glorified cash cow, along for the ride. At first, I rationalised the $3000AUD I paid to be there as a means for the poorest communities in Phnom Penh to access free medication or basic health care. However, I later learned that our doctor, who had been tirelessly working for his community, was quitting because his salary was too low.

But I remember something that seemed beyond odd to me, the head of the public health program was an American man who had previously been a scuba diver instructor, and we only saw him once a week. So in summary, a scuba diver instructor without any experience was running a health care program and being paid more than a doctor. Oh also every very Friday we would spend an entire day uploading data that we late found out did not go anywhere (so there’s that).

A Checklist To Help Distinguish The Good From The Bad

We don't regret our experiences with voluntourism because it was their eye-opening nature that pushed us to examine the “how” behind the “why” of our good intentions. But other people’s real lives are not the vehicles for our self-realisation, and looking back now we wish that we had the resources to critically analyse the nuances and ethical issues involved with international volunteering.

After years of combing through the shame that comes with volunteering in those spaces, we learned how to look for an organisation that is ethical. We happened upon an organisation called Refugee Support Europe (after three months of searching) and there we saw how an organisation can uphold the dignity of those they seek to help and aid those local stakeholders without allowing them to become dependent on their aid by pushing for more sustainable solutions.

This introductory guide was formulated with the hopes that none of you will fall into the trap we so readily did.

  1. Do your research! The organisation itself should be focused in one country or region, and be committed there for the long - run. There should be a clear understanding of their role in the community they are situated. If they have a million and one programs on offer like a twisted McDonalds menu of suffering, it's clear they are moulding their program for the volunteer a.k.a consumer.

  2. The organisation must have a barrier of entry. There should be a request for your CV, references and/or an interview of some kind. If a retail store cares about the capability and personality of their worker, then an organisation that works with vulnerable populations definitely should.

  3. They should not charge you to volunteer. To clarify, this does not include living expenses, or raising donations from local friends and family because aid organisations need funds to run, they can’t exist on air and good intentions alone. The most transparent of them will ask volunteers to pay for their own living expenses to ensure any incoming funds are channelled into their work.

  4. Pay close attention to the sustainability of the proposed projects. Are their projects short-term band-aid solutions? If they are, then is there an immediate crisis unfolding where this is necessary. Or, is it just a lazy approach to development and going to do more harm than good? Weigh the options and do your research [again] on the region and the development problem the organisation is seeking to address.

  5. Be critical of yourself; if you’re willing to spend thousands of dollars overseas then you should be spending a few hours each week by contributing to your local communities [whether it be by donations or volunteering your time].

Good luck!

To learn more about how an organisation can do it right, check out: Changing the Game: Aid with Dignity.

Graphic by The Pvblication


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