Voluntourism has had a bad rap. And I think it deserves it. Why? Because often the people that get involved in voluntourism get involved for the wrong reasons: to make themselves feel good, to get into medical school, because they want an excuse to continue traveling to exotic and interesting places but feel guilty just lying on a beach, because they feel this overwhelming need to “help those less fortunate.”
I fell into this field. I have a background in education. I lived, worked, studied, volunteered, and travelled overseas. I happened to know the right people. And the little project I worked at never had any funding, so we started an international volunteer program to help create a regular flow of funding. And before we knew it the project fell to the wayside, and all our attention was focused on the volunteer program.
A few years later one of the smartest students I have ever met came to work for us. And when I asked her why, she told me it was basically to keep a close eye on us! I loved that. This is so important to me- to constantly challenge and evaluate what I do. She is my organization’s program director and I asked her again the other week why she is still in this racket- and she said because someone has to do it right.
Yesterday @TalesFromthHood wrote “TOTALLY believe that structured, appropriate intercultural exchange is a good thing. But I seriously question the volunteer bit.”
Quite honestly I have to agree with him. I have written about this before. There are multiple challenges with short and long term volunteers. It is very easy for things to go wrong. There have been too many situations where people end up painting walls or playing with orphans. There have been too many volunteers that have quite literally taken paid jobs away from local people. And there have been too many cases of new wells, new schools, or new health clinics being built that cannot be sustained, or even worse that take business away from existing enterprises.
A few years back a group of students where I worked (not under my guidance) built a new “free” well 100 feet down the road from an existing well. The existing well was maintained by a man that charged a nominal fee to cover the cost of maintaining the well and to earn a little profit. What right had these students to come into this community and effectively put this man out of business?
One of the biggest problems with voluntourism is it reinforces the stereotype of the pathetic person that needs to be “helped” or “saved.” We are going there to fix things. We have the solutions. We are the heroes.
Not to mention how disappointed people are when they realize the little impact they have made. One of the most common reflections of returned volunteers is that they felt like they couldn’t or didn’t accomplish enough when they were volunteering overseas.
What I want to see happen is people going overseas to learn from the communities they visit. Isn’t it way more interesting and amazing to visit existing organizations that are already doing good work?
Volunteering can still be an important part of the experience. Definitely, get your hands dirty. There is no better way to learn about what an organization does than to experience it first hand. But it needs to have context built around it. What kind of community development already exists? What is working? What needs to change? What can we learn from this experience? What is my role as a visitor to this community? What can I bring home with me? And how will this experience shape the decisions I make going forward?