Why You Should Rethink your Volunteering Holiday
!!DISCLAIMER!! Not every volunteer placement is harmful. Not every volunteer intentionally causes harm to the places they visit. However, if you choose to go on a ‘voluntourism’ holiday it is important to understand the ethical and real-world consequences of such a decision.
Voluntourism is a fast-growing sector of global tourism that sees mainly western civilians travel to developing countries in an attempt to fix perceived problems. On an individual level, this may seem like a decent, charitable, and selfless thing to do, but digging under the surface, you can quickly see how detrimental and ethically wrong many of these volunteering opportunities are.
Firstly, both profiting traveling companies and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’S) such as UNICEF do not regulate what their volunteers say about the countries they visit, and this can lead to inaccurate facts being taken as truth about these nations. For example, Madonna, after visiting Malawi, stated the country was in a “state of emergency” and that there were over a million children orphaned by AIDS in the country. However, there is no substantial evidence to make either of these claims remotely accurate let alone concrete, highlighting how easily misinformation can be cultivated through celebrity volunteering. So, while it may seem great that western, cultural powerhouses such as Madonna are bringing awareness to developing countries, in reality little is achieved through such programmes.
But what about the people who aren’t celebrities? Many prospective ‘voluntourists’ will point to the money they raise before and throughout the trip as a way to show that they are in fact contributing to the country they are visiting. However, the truth is that the majority of this money will be going straight into the pockets of the big companies that organised these excursions, even if these companies have links with humanitarian aid charities and Non-Profit NGO’s. Therefore, in the majority of cases, no amount of bake sale money is going to help the children in the country you are visiting.
During the gap year age of finding yourself, before buckling down and getting a degree, it can seem like a great CV booster to volunteer in a developing country. However, students are almost never fully trained in the tasks they undertake. This not only creates a labour centred deficit, but also leaves natives without jobs, causing more economic stress for the local economy and by consequence the economy of the country as a whole. This blatantly goes against the simple volunteering rule of helping and not hindering the country you are visiting.
Furthermore, the idea that westerners need to come to developing countries to ‘fix’ and civilise them is severely problematic. Whether they mean to or not voluntourists perpetuate a modern – albeit subtle – form of colonialism as they attempt to ‘fix’ the developing countries’ problems while systematically ensuring said country stays subordinate (by keeping the indigenous out of jobs, worsening the economy etc). Worryingly, it has become evident that children in small communities throughout Western African have been taught, both formally and informally through society, to pander to the white people that arrive at their villages because they associate fairer skin with money. So the children that crowded round you and your selfie stick for a photo that you can stick up on your tinder profile didn’t do so because they love you and are grateful for your help, but because they associate you with wealth. Again, I doubt many volunteers would even be aware of the type of impact that they have, but it is real and highly damaging.
Similarly, both on larger and individual scales, voluntourism creates a dependency culture that is highly dangerous. Afterall, voluntourism is still tourism, and with that comes a market where people of the visited country can be easily exploited by both visitors and the state. The city of Siem Reap in Cambodia was exposed for having many orphanages filled with children that did in fact have parents. It was considered more cost effective to pimp out unorphaned children to play and perform for tourists than actually let volunteers care for real orphans. Regardless of how well-meaning voluntourists are, this market of child exploitation creates an economic dependency on western travellers as well as taking important emphasis away from those children who are in true, desperate need of financial aid.
Even for those who are in an institutionalised orphanage setting, voluntourism can still have negative impacts. It is a well-known fact that for healthy mental growth a young child must be able to develop stable, enriching and long-term attachments to their carers. Allowing travellers to hug and play with a child and then leave after three weeks, only for other travellers to take up the role, has the potential to do great damage to a child’s psyche. This cycle of meeting tourist after tourist emotionally benefits no one but said tourist, and therefore again goes against the main reason most volunteers want to go abroad in the first place – to help others.
Furthermore, when the travellers take photos of the children they believe they are helping, and plaster them online they almost never have the true consent of those children to post those photos. This is a form of exploitation that goes against laws of privacy, consent and child protection as the volunteers will often post without regard of the feelings of the children, only the feelings of those they aim to impress by posting such photos.
Hopefully, through this article you have seen how damaging voluntourism can be if done incorrectly. This being said, the charity Tourism Concern, despite shutting down due to lack of funds, has some incredible advice if you still decide to volunteer abroad. The charity asks you to consider a number of questions about your trip before you even think about booking flights and can be found at this link (at the bottom of the article): https://www.worldtravelguide.net/features/feature/does-voluntourism-do-more-harm-than-good/
However, I believe that even with these questions being answered, damage will always be done when someone goes to a country with the intentions of saving natives in a matter of mere weeks. Instead I suggest you take a trip back to nature, spend the £4000 you raised that the orphans won’t get a glimpse at, and visit a conservation site in the Amazon rainforest where your money will go to saving the planet.