Why Voluntourism May Be Doing More Harm Than Good

The term ‘voluntourism’ combines volunteering with a tourist experience. It involves the exploration of a different country while helping communities in that country. With its gaining popularity, many organisations offering programs that provide the whole package that is voluntourism. What is so appealing about them is that you pay for a feel good experience by giving back as well as getting to enjoy a different culture. Overall, you’d leave patting yourself on the back for what you’ve done when in reality, these programs may actually be doing more harm than good for the host countries.

Projects Abroad lists some of the benefits of voluntourism which include contributing to a “well - run and sustainable project” which will lead to “long-term development,” and contributions to the local economy. Programs also emphasise on the development of a CV for students in school, providing them with a meaningful experience that helped broaden their horizons. Let’s face it, most of us have been tempted by such programs. I see these ads pop up regularly when I’m online with sites like Travel for Teens being especially attractive by curating trips that would appeal to young adults who want to make a difference and travel at the same time.

However, last year I volunteered to teach children from Myanmar in a local center in my own home country of Malaysia, but it was only for two weeks. While it was great bonding with the children and teaching them history and geography, subjects they had never done before, something felt odd. It was tough trying to squeeze an entire primary school syllabus into two weeks. Especially when they had no grounding in these subjects. As a result, I realised I could only touch on certain areas that may be of interest for them. That had me wondering at the end of those two weeks, whether the hours I had spent there really made a difference for them. Was that enough? This does not count as voluntourism but these programs usually last on similar time frames, and at the most last a few months. Even then, it makes you wonder how beneficial it is for the kids. I don’t know who came in after me to continue teaching them, but it made me realise that there was no structure in their syllabus, and stability is what these kids more than a continuous swapping of different volunteers.

Important figures like JK Rowling have also come out to speak against voluntourism as she wrote online “#voluntourism is one of the drivers of family break up in very poor countries. It incentivises ‘orphanages’ that are run as businesses.” Her charity Lumos found that “90 per cent of the eight million children in institutions worldwide are not orphans and have families at home which want to care for them but cannot because they are pushed into institutions because of poverty and discrimination on the basis of disability or ethnicity.”

A Guardian article by Tina Rosenberg also brings up a good point regarding this, in wealthy countries, children from unstable homes are put in the foster system to be placed with other families. So why then in developing countries is it the opposite? Rosenberg notes that “Save the Children looked at orphanages in Sri Lanka in 2005 and found that 92 percent of children had a living parent.” Similarly in Cambodia, “40 years after the Khmer Rouge genocide, the number of orphanages has been growing according to the UN. The reason for this is demand - but not rom abandoned children. Instead it comes from a huge rise in Australian tourists willing to pay to work with them.” These tourists, although they have good intentions, are unaware of what the true long term effects are from their contribution. In fact, there probably isn’t much of a long term effect, because they are not helping these communities move forward. Rosenberg paints the picture quite succinctly; “if a charity hired locals for its unskilled work, it would be spending money. If it uses volunteers who pay to be there, it’s raising money.” It’s all based on economics, but it is not the communities that are benefiting from such spending.

At the end of the day, the cycle of poverty can only be broken with these communities if they are able to find the solutions for themselves. They know best how to fix their problems. You as a tourist, are more likely to be of more help by purchasing food or souvenirs from local stores as that money goes directly to the owners of these stores and they can then use it to help their families. Hence, the next time you are tempted by an ad promoting a fun volunteer trip to help communities in different countries, check what exactly the program aims to achieve with all this in mind. In the end, you would be wasting money and harming communities that are being exploited.