Lots of programs offer opportunities for travelers to volunteer their time and resources for people in need. But are we actually helping?
It's a growing industry. Donate some money, and travel to have a volunteer experience that will change your life, and the lives of those in need. It's not financially feasible for everyone, but lots of well-meaning people with extra resources share what they can. And unfortunately, there are plenty of people taking advantage of them. And in the process, they're really hurting the communities they pretend to be helping. Sadly, this cynicism is well-founded. The voluntourism industry is thriving, and exploiting vulnerable people to do so.
According to NPR, "More than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year."
(Via). And what kind of programs are they working for? Cultural immersion programs, volunteering opportunities at foreign orphanages, building projects- they all sound like amazing ideas and there's nothing wrong with wanting to help when you're able. It's an admirable quality that unfortunately is exploited.
Cultural immersion programs.
Sounds awesome! A great way to forge connections between people whose paths might not otherwise cross. And there are plenty of nonprofits out there that try to ensure that the experience is a mutually beneficial exchange. And then there are some that take very little care when it comes to the long-term impact their organization has on the communities they visit. Theresa Higgs, who runs United Planet, was critical of this new interest in voluntourism (via):
"What I think often gets lost is the host communities. Are they gaining? Are they winning? Are they true partners in this? Or are they simply a means to an end to a student's learning objective, to someone's desire to have fun on vacation and learn something?"
There's nothing that pulls our heartstrings more than a story about an orphaned child, frightened and alone in the world. And unfortunately the voluntourism industry is actually creating a market for trafficking children. UNICEF is investigating orphanages that take advantage of struggling families by promising better opportunities for their children. It's untrue, children are often better off in a family or community than an institution. But that doesn't stop these organizations from misrepresenting themselves to the communities they function in. Few of them perform background checks on the tourists that come to visit, which demonstrates a complete lack of concern for the safety of the children in their care. And the constant rotating door of foreign visitors leaves much to be desired in terms of stability, which is incredibly important for young children (via).
Something tangible! And unfortunately, dubiously useful. There are NGOs that provide support for the communities they work with, but there are many others that simply want to sell you the experience of meaningful work, without actually investing in a partnership with those they supposedly are there to help. Building projects are long term, they're not something that can be done overnight. And if they're not connected to the place they're being done, it does nothing to uplift the people living there. For example: Are the building supplies used being bought locally, or brought in? How much money is actually being brought to the community being assisted? Via:
"Odds are good, for example, that basic building supplies exist for sale in the area, and that there are people already skilled in masonry and other artisinal practices nearby. Where situations like this exist, your participation as a (probably) unskilled participant might be best directed at doing work that will allow local community members to practice their professions in a paid capacity onsite. Such approaches promote employment, get things built faster, and support the local economy."
Wanting to help is a good thing.
It's awful that there are people out there who want to take advantage of it. But what's worse is the detrimental effect organizations like that can have on the lives and economies of the people they claim to help. It unfortunately means that we need to be critical when it comes to programs that claim to be altruistic. We have to ask questions about their long term goals, their local partnerships, and the effect that they actually have. They might look great on the surface, but it's our responsibility to make sure they're not selling us a feel-good experience. We need to make sure they're actually delivering.