Voluntourism: Contributing Beyond Community Washing
Voluntourism: Contributing Beyond Community Washing
Dirty Waters to Explore
The practice of voluntourism – volunteering while on holiday – raises important ethical questions. Heightened demands for ‘authentic’ experiences and positive contributions at the community level have brought this hot topic to our attention. By putting this concept on the table, we realize we may face some resistance, especially from responsible travelers and conscious tourism practitioners.
The concept of combining volunteering with tourism has been at the center of scandals, especially in the early 2000s. Many private companies and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have immorally manipulated the desire to ‘help’ by creating fake needs that justify their presence and operations.
The phenomenon is a hard one to quantify due to the lack of a clear definition. However, according to the studies reported by Claire Bennet, Co-Founder of Learning Service, for CREST - Center for Responsible Travel, it is estimated that an average of 900,000 Americans volunteer abroad every year. Another study from 2013 shows that, in the UK every year, 2.5 million people take part in “gap year” development projects. In 2008, the value of voluntourism was calculated to be $2 billion, and this number has likely increased since then.
Given the growth of interest in community activities in tourism, it seems natural for there to be a rising curiosity about the concept of voluntourism. In parallel, there is a risk of surging ‘community washing’. This refers to the version of greenwashing as it relates to activities that are supposed to benefit the local communities but do not.
Nevertheless, we know that organizations exist which have positive impacts on the community level through voluntourism programs. It would be a shame to throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater, so perhaps it is worth investigating the matter further.
We are aware, however, that we are about to take a deep dive into some quite dirty waters.
Historical Issues of Voluntourism
The concept of ‘voluntourism’ is controversial and for good reason. The main ‘accusations’ are that:
- Voluntourism creates more problems than offers solutions, and
- It is established on fake needs, and sold as real urgencies.
Traditionally, the image of voluntourism is attached to a small number of activities. For example, teaching English in local schools and orphanages, and building schools in underserved communities.
The main critique of these activities is the lack of skills of the young volunteers, who are themselves improvising as teachers or builders for a week or two.
The Human Level
If we take a closer look, we realize that the consequences can be harsh and are felt on many different levels, primarily on the human level.
In fact, allowing volunteers to interact with local, underprivileged children who often have complex physical and emotional needs can intensify past traumas. This can create more long-term psychological consequences, such as attachment issues.
On the learning side, the programs don’t usually provide a quality experience. This is due to both the lack of experience and skills of the temporary teachers and the resulting lack of continuity from the short length of their stay.
The Local Economy Level
Another frequent criticism is linked to the fact that these programs often take away jobs from local skilled workers. This negatively impacts the local economy and puts local families in critical financial situations. Even when volunteers work under the supervision of local skilled workers, what is the benefit of building houses if they are too expensive for the locals to buy?
Unfortunately, there are instances of new construction remaining empty and unused because their existence serves a purpose that has nothing to do with local needs and requests.
The Cultural Level
From a cultural perspective, these activities can also sometimes lead to offensive and unethical behaviors. If volunteers are taken to foreign environments and not properly prepared in terms of what constitutes positive interactions, they can, unfortunately, take part in encounters that consolidate cultural stereotypes. When working with faraway cultures of which you know very little, real awareness and education is needed to foster positive interactions.
The General Level
On a more general level, the idea of having foreigners who come to help can create and reinforce a dependence mentality. This, in turn, can shift the focus and responsibility of the government away from the real needs of the population.
Building more schools won’t solve the problems of an inefficient education system, nor the lack of investment in the teachers' salaries in a country’s rural areas.
Self-Reflections to Move Toward Positive Impact
We believe that cultural interchange can be mutually beneficial and enriching and that this is possible through voluntourism. However, the experiences need to be consciously and purposefully designed in order to achieve this.
A natural question arises: what is the point of taking unskilled people for short periods of time to places?
We should also ask if their work and contributions will change anything. If so, great! But will that change be beneficial for the host community?
Are voluntourism programs created to provide efficient solutions to local problems with the kind support of the visitors, or are they staged performances, created to offer a palliative cure to the guilty feelings of the tourists and their dominant cultures?
In the US, the orphanage as an institution became extinct in the 1960s. In the UK, orphanages were gradually replaced with foster homes and families and today, they no longer exist. We should seriously ask ourselves why we are still considering orphanages acceptable in other countries.
Enriching Experiences for All: Can a Voluntourism Experience Help Locals?
There are different kinds of voluntourism experiences available today. The spread of the existence of bad practices in the past has perhaps caused the opportunity for adjustment and behavioral change in the industry.
However, we are convinced that there is a great responsibility in offering them because the individual and societal damages and risk, as we have seen, can be devastating. Perhaps, we dare to suggest that not everyone should be offering them.
Intrepid Travel, for example, is very clear about that: “We believe communities seeking volunteers are best served by specialist agencies”. Being a travel operator is what the company recognized as its strength, which also means putting limits on its actions.
Volunteering is a delicate matter because it involves directly human beings and their entire ecosystems. It should be offered with caution and prepared with awareness and detailed planning for the future.
Raleigh Expeditions, a historic voluntourism organization born in 1978, is committed to “ensuring that all our projects are responsible and have long-term sustainable impact.” The company seems to achieve this by working on three pillars.
- Firstly, the projects are developed in partnership with other stakeholders, experts, and, most importantly, community leaders.
- Secondly, to adapt to the changing needs and to guarantee effectiveness the projects need to be constantly reviewed.
- Last, but not least, the volunteers are trained both to be prepared for the specific contest they will work in and to ensure their skills are valued and enhanced.
The raised awareness about the negative consequences of certain unethical practices has led many organizations to change. World Challenge, a longstanding UK-based company specializing in student trips, for example, stopped working with orphanages in 2017 after having halted elephant riding in 2016.
Re-defining the Concept
During the voluntourism ‘boom’ of the 1990s, it appeared that the main motivation for spending time abroad was to get involved in a local community development project. Action born from a desire to help and contribute is not free from dangerous assumptions of cultural superiority and social stigma.
Can we still consider this type of program as voluntourism? Or does the more egotistic nature of the motivation jeopardize the core mission?
If we accept that the meaning of voluntourism is related to the act of ‘gifting’, we could choose to not confine it to the monetary realm and include time and energy as well.
The work done by Orbis Expedition and Kate Webb shows us that the donation could also include professional skills. The company has, in the past, organized expeditions aimed to support the healthy and independent growth of small local businesses in Malawi. They do so via volunteers who pass on valuable entrepreneurial skills directly to the locals while creating a direct chain of solidarity and a collaborative space to exchange experiences.
The Power of Experiencing Unexpected Encounters
Although motivation remains central, even the more ‘egotistic’ desire of expanding the horizons of young adults can have a positive impact on a large scale. Traveling abroad at a young age will impact the way we see the world, and ourselves.
Even if experiencing cultural immersion is the main reason for traveling, it becomes a practical reminder for students and adults alike that the culture they live in is only one of a universe of identities. Discovering that there are other ways of looking at the world and interacting with nature has represented on many occasions the trigger for life-changing events.
This can also happen through other responsible tourism experiences like our Mida Creek Village Experience in Kenya, for example. Here, the traveler will experience life in a community camp, in the privacy of a small group, or while traveling with their own family. They’ll also be immersed in the natural environment and be exposed to the world as the local family see it and live it.
Travel can be one of the best teaching opportunities, especially when it provides the chance to observe who we are outside our bubbles of cultural comfort. It can not only have an incredible effect on our mental and physical development, but also it can plant seeds that could, in the future, demolish the “White Savior Complex” once and for all.
We hope to have provided some elements of reflection that can guide your curiosity when exploring the copious voluntourism options.
Given the significant risks, the search for opportunities should always be guided by a responsible traveler’s mind.
You can start by verifying the allegedly positive impacts the company promotes:
- Investigate how the company operates
- Look at how transparent it is about its impact
- Ask questions - this is a basic but forceful means we have in our hands (if they don’t answer, that’s still an answer!)
Traveling responsibly also means practicing self-questioning. Realize the real intentions of your trip. Are you embodying your own version of the “White Saviour,” or are you trying to build an alternative to it?
Most importantly, are you aware of your inner beliefs about your role and actions? This is important because these will translate into behaviors while traveling, as well as at home, regardless if we identify them or not.
Happy responsible explorations and volunteering!