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Pasha Mabanza, October 18 2020

3 Reasons Why Voluntourism Is Bad

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 build houses or the retired couple that builds wells in Bolivia. 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 rising trend accounts for roughly $2 billion in collective expenditures each year. Although voluntourists intend is to help communities in need, these trips can often have the opposite effect. With many of these areas being left no better off and in some cases worse off than where they started.

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.  It is important to note that we are not claiming that these volunteer tourists have any negative intentions, but rather that this industry produces many negative results. The vast majority of these students lack the skills or training required for their tasks which can often make their projects ineffective. Additionally, even the minimal resources that are being poured into training voluntourists would often be better spent providing education and training to the local population. When compounded with the fact that most of the volunteers will leave the community after a few months or even weeks the benefits of their efforts are often limited. Which results in many of these projects struggling to make lasting and sustainable improvements in these communities. With all this in mind, it is very difficult to see the upside to such an industry.

Jack of no trades

Whether it’s building a school, digging wells, or even teaching, it is essential that the people doing these jobs have the necessary skills. However, with the rise of many for-profit volunteer tourism agencies, there is often little to no effort to ensure that the volunteers are adequately qualified. This lack of training has a much wider impact beyond saving these agencies money. It can result in the work these volunteers engage in being of low quality and in some cases unusable altogether. In these cases, additional work will be needed to repair or replace this work. Which is a burden that falls on the locals who are left behind to pick up the pieces. Without the financial means to make such repairs, the communities will find themselves back in the same position they started in.

In the case of education, in particular, it means that these students may not meet the local educational standards. As a result of which, they risk missing out on many opportunities and may even be required to repeat their schooling.  From repairing houses to sending kids back to school, correcting these mistakes require even more work and resources. This type of redundant work makes it difficult for a non-profit to honour their commitments to their donors and their cause. This speaks to the core issue of voluntourism. If a non-profit is not working in the interests of these two key stakeholders then who are they working for?

Give a man a fish 

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. At Nyantende Foundation we think every charitable organization's goal should be to no longer exists. By that, we mean that we should be working towards empowering the communities we work into such an extent that they no longer require our assistance. Without this goal, they would be dependent on the assistance that we're providing them forever. However, in order to create this sustainable change, an organization must set up sustainable systems for development.

In this line of thinking it would be much more prudent to invest this flow of capital directly into the community members you are seeking to help. When provided with the right tools and appropriate training they will be able to build and develop their own community. In the case of education, we see this as being a way of creating this type of sustainable change. Whether it's through primary school, secondary school or even vocational training education is empowerment. It puts local community members 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 these communities that provides for the reduction of inequality. But more importantly, this leads to the empowerment of the community in a way that gives them back control of their own future.

Here today, gone tomorrow

Community development is a complex process that takes a lot of time and effort. It requires committed, long-term partners to help drive community-based change. This is something that is notably lacking in voluntourism. With most volunteer tourists only remaining in these communities for a few weeks they are unable to make a lasting impact. Though through their immediate actions they may be able to make small, incremental changes. Any progress or change that they make will dissipate shortly after their departure. Leaving behind a community that is no better off than it was before they arrived. This is because nothing has actually changed in the community itself.

The best volunteers and community partners need to be in the community for years. They need to have an intimate understanding of the problems facing that community and the type of assistance it needs. It is not possible for someone who will only be in the community for at most a couple of months to create such a change. However, it is possible for those that live in the community. After all, who has a more intimate understanding of the communities needs and issues than those who experience them every day. By empowering local residents, the ability to improve their living standards is given to the people who it affects the most. This type of model results in more long-term and sustainable growth for these communities.

So, what can you do? 

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 non-profit 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. 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. In short, we encourage everyone to get involved in a cause that matters to them and in a way that helps those affected by it.

Written by

Pasha Mabanza

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