Voluntourism: selfless service or destructive intrusion
By AISLING MCNARY-HICKEY
You’re scrolling through your Facebook timeline to see your friend just uploaded a photo. She’s pictured with an underprivileged minority child (whom she hasn’t actually spoken to since she got back home) she met while volunteering abroad. In a lengthy post she describes her life-changing experience, noting, of course, how fortunate she is to have made such a positive impact on the children’s lives during her two-week stay.
We all know a person who has volunteered abroad or is planning to in the future. Maybe you are that person. And if you are, I’m sure you’re proud of your experience. After all, you helped people who needed help but couldn’t help themselves, right?
This is known as voluntourism. Voluntourism is a form of tourism in which travelers participate in volunteer work, typically for a charity. It is an increasingly popular form of international travel, according to Visit.org. With proper supervision and training, volunteering abroad can have a positive impact. Unfortunately, the vast majority of voluntourists are unaware of just how much harm they cause when they try to help.
The hard truth is that some people focus mostly on how their trips affected them rather than the communities they are serving, and it is especially common amongst college students. If you’re considering volunteering abroad in the future, consider looking into alternatives that won’t harm the people you intend to help.
Probably the most common form of voluntourism involves construction. Unfortunately, most of these projects are based on what the voluntourists want to do, rather than what the host communities want or need. For example, voluntourists prefer to build new things instead of maintaining old structures, even if the host communities already have perfectly serviceable ones that are only in need of maintenance. According to Georgetown University’s Beeck Center, despite the fact that many service trips involve building public restrooms in underprivileged rural communities, they are often abandoned because there are no tourists willing to maintain them after they are built.
The unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of voluntourists are never part of projects that succeed in the long term. Sometimes this is because they just aren’t familiar enough with their host communities to understand their needs. For example, there was an infamous project in Haiti where voluntourists built houses for needy, uneducated families, but these families still had to beg in the streets to support themselves long after the voluntourists left.
Construction projects are also much safer and much more helpful when qualified professionals are the ones doing them. However, the qualified professionals have their jobs stolen by volunteers who do it for free. Volunteers are not qualified to build houses or dig wells, so their work is often shoddy or unsafe. In fact, most voluntourists are not qualified for any of the work that they do.
This goes from unsafe to life-threatening when they decide that they are qualified to provide medical care to underprivileged people in foreign countries. Projects Abroad, a voluntourism company, actually published testimonials from volunteers reminiscing about performing medical procedures without a license, which is just as dangerous as it is illegal. Projects Abroad and Gap Medics both have medical voluntourist programs specifically geared toward teens and high school students. Would you trust a wealthy 16-year-old from the suburbs to treat your malaria?
Anthropologist Noelle Sullivan and her team observed medical voluntourists as part of a study for the Scientific American Blog Network, and what they uncovered was shocking. Most of the surveyed volunteers had delivered at least one baby, even though none of them were licensed to do so. They rarely stayed long enough to see if their patients recovered from, or even survived, the procedures they performed, and consistently overestimated their positive impact.
One especially disturbing case was that of a young woman who told Sullivan that she was a medical student, but frequently violated obstetrics best practices while delivering children unsupervised, endangering the lives of both the mothers and the babies. When she left after her vacation was over, Sullivan and her team learned that she was an undergrad who had no idea how much danger she had put her patients in. Who knows how many infant deaths she caused, for which she will face no repercussions?
These aren’t the only children who suffer due to the ignorance and irresponsibility of volunteers. Lots of people volunteer as teachers for children–but very few of them have any qualifications in education. When Sarah Pycroft, a qualified English teacher and coach, volunteered abroad through a nonprofit voluntourist company, she was appalled at the lack of appropriate training for volunteers and just how little the children were actually learning. There was no curriculum whatsoever and the kids just relearned extremely basic material with every fresh batch of volunteers. Unfortunately, this is the norm, not the exception.
Surely the cardinal sin in the voluntourism industry is the rise of “orphanage tourism,” a practice where children in orphanages are forced to perform for tourists, advertise their orphanage or even beg on the streets so tourists will give the institutions more money.
Both UNICEF and Save the Children don’t want people supporting orphanages because they are much worse for children, both psychologically and developmentally, than community-based programs like foster care, which have succeeded in countries of all income levels. After the Nepal earthquake in 2015, UNICEF released a statement asking volunteers to reconsider their impact, saying, “Without realizing it, such support may be indirectly harming children.”
The children feel like they are continuously being abandoned by volunteers, who bond with them and then leave after a week or two, which sometimes triggers memories of their separation from their parents, whether or not they are actually orphans. Several Australian politicians are pushing to outlaw orphanage visits in different countries altogether.
Orphanages are also breeding grounds for physical and sexual abuse. Volunteers themselves need minimal or no background checks to get unlimited access to vulnerable, love-starved children in third-world countries. The children have virtually no one to advocate for them if someone exploits them, especially if that person is a rich tourist from a more powerful nation.
If you plan on volunteering abroad, you can do a lot more good by just donating the money you planned to spend on your vacation to a reputable charity. No matter how much good you think you can do, the professionals and host communities themselves can do it better, so don’t make it harder for them. Volunteer in your own community where your efforts won’t go to waste. Wouldn’t you rather know for a fact that you’re making a difference?