Volunteer travel or voluntourism is often billed as a way to do good and learn about other cultures. It’s framed as unique opportunities…but voluntourism in general has its problems. Here’s why a lot of people think it should stop.
Yeah, bluntly? It’s patronizing. You come in as an outsider assuming you or your guide know what these people need. Sure, it might seem great to give an orphan child a hug, but what that child needs is a home.
You Don’t Have the Skills
The vast majority of volunteer tourists don’t actually have any kind of relevant skills. This means that the projects they’re doing are things like basic construction, painting, handing out sandwiches.
These are things people can do for themselves. They don’t need some wealthy American student to come in and do it for them.
You Aren’t Going to Stay
That child you befriended? What happens to them when you leave; most likely they’ll be crying. Again, because this keeps happening over and over again. It’s not good for kids and it’s not even good for adults this happens to.
It Disrupts the Economy
Say you come in and build a new classroom for their school. What about the local construction workers? They aren’t getting paid to do their jobs if you’re doing it for them.
Children have been Sold
Last, and worst, there have been incidents of children being bought and sold to be put in orphanages for volunteer tourists to fawn over. That “orphan” was probably taken from their family for a pittance of money. Or the family thought the kid was going to boarding school. The vast majority of these kids have family who can, and should, take them in.
But, let’s say that you love travel and actually do want to help. Is there a way you can do so that doesn’t do damage?
Here are some things to consider:
Tourism Brings in Money
Local communities want, even need, your cash. Instead of coming in as a voluntourist, why not just go as a tourist? Buy local handcrafts, eat in local restaurants, hire a local to show you around. All of this helps the economy and helps a community survive. Overtourism is, yes, an issue, but if you think about it..
Choose Projects Carefully
If you happen to have a useful skill, use it! If you want to teach English, look for projects where you will be working with, not random people but teachers and college students who might go into teaching; that way you’re improving the English skills of many people, not just one.
Avoid orphanage “befriending” projects.
Make sure that the organization you’re choosing is not one which focuses on finding volunteers, but rather one which happens to have a project that they need volunteers for.
Volunteering abroad is not necessarily a bad thing, but short one to two week stays aren’t a huge amount of benefit. Unless you can stay there an extended period of time, consider other ways to help such as giving money, sponsoring a child, donating 3D printed product, etc.
Or just go there and spend your money. Cash helps a community more than almost anything else.