Voluntourism refers to a form of tourism where travelers engage in charitable volunteer work. Think of the student that takes a gap year and travels to Thailand to do aid work. These types of trips are often organized by large charities with the aim of improving a designated community in some way or another. By some estimates, there are as many as 1.6 million volunteer tourists taking part in these trips each year. This trend accounts for approximately $2 billion in collective expenditures every year. Although the thoughts behind this are noble, these trips can often have the opposite impact.
As this trend rises in popularity the downsides have become increasingly apparent. Many of these trips seem to do more to help volunteer tourists pad their resumes or improve their college applications than they do to improve the lives of people in the communities they travel to. The vast majority of these students lack the hands-on experience required for their tasks which can often lead to poor quality building and other structures. We must also consider the fact that many of these communities have many locals who would benefit from the resources being poured into the volunteers. When compounded with the fact that most of the volunteers do not stay more than a couple of weeks it becomes clear that the benefits can often be temporary. Without making a lasting and sustainable improvement to a local population.
Whether it’s building a school, digging wells, or even teaching, it is essential the people doing these jobs have the necessary skills. However, with the rise of many for-profit volunteer tourism agencies, there is often no effort to ensure that the volunteers are adequately qualified. This can result in work that is of poor quality and in many cases in need of repair. This leaves the locals behind to pick up the pieces. Often having to struggle to produce the funds needed to repair these structures.
In the case of education, it means that these students may not meet the local educational standards and as such can miss out on many opportunities. In order to correct these mistakes, it will require even more work and money. This effectively reduced the power of donation and costs these communities precious time.
Perhaps one of the biggest flaws in voluntourism is its inability to make a sustainable lasting impact on the local population. Every volunteer working in these communities represents one less job opportunity for the local populous. As the old adage goes: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
Provided with the right tools and appropriate training the people of the community will be able to help build their community on their own. This puts them in a position to both find gainful employment and develop a future for their community that reflects their unique needs. Over time this approach enables organic social development within the communities that provides for the reduction of inequality.
Community development is a complex process that takes time. It requires committed long term partners to help drive change. With most volunteer tourists only remaining in their communities for a few weeks they are unable to make a lasting impact. Any progress of change that they make will dissipate shortly after their departure. Leaving behind a community no better off than it was before they arrived.
The best volunteers and community partners need to be in the community for years. They need to have a distinct understanding of the problems facing that community and the type of assistance it needs. This is not possible for someone who will be there for only a few weeks or a month but however is possible for those that live in the community. By empowering local residents, the authority to improve their living standards is given to the people who it affects the most. This type of model results in much more long-term and sustainable growth for these areas, that can last for generations.
The key to sustainable growth is the empowerment of the local populous. Without that, no matter how altruistic our motives are we will only be benefiting ourselves. That does not mean that we can not get involved in the process of making changes. There is a lot that we can do without leaving our home countries… or even our homes. Consider getting involved with organizations like the Nyantende Foundation by starting a student club. If you’re short on time you can even make a donation, to help support the cause.
Charities like ours focus on providing children in developing countries with quality education. This allows us to empower an entire generation of a community to become change-makers. These children who otherwise could have likely fell victim to child labour. Additionally, by employing staff that are local to the community we can much more effectively determine how to best allocate our resources. This approach results in a much more efficient and sustainable initiative.