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Voluntourism: Does It Really Help?

Nearly every traveler has stumbled across at least one instance of heartbreaking poverty while on vacation: a crumbling school, an emaciated stray dog, a child with a disability begging on the street. It's only human to want to help alleviate such problems -- and the growing voluntourism industry promises travelers a chance to do just that.

medical volunteer in the democratic republic of the congo

Also known as volunteer vacations, voluntourism typically involves a short-term commitment to service as part of a trip that also includes sightseeing or other tourism activities. For the many travelers who don't have time to devote to longer-term volunteer opportunities such as the Peace Corps, voluntourism offers the chance to make a difference in smaller ways.

Unfortunately, there's a growing body of evidence that many voluntourism trips don't actually make much positive impact -- and might even cause harm. Read on to learn what to watch out for when choosing a voluntourism project.

The Benefits of Voluntourism

The main purpose of a voluntourism trip seems obvious: to help the community you're visiting. But if you're only volunteering for a few days, it's important not to overestimate how much of a difference you can realistically make.

Josh Powell, Director of Innovation at the nonprofit Development Gateway, says that volunteers with specialized skills tend to make the most impact: "Most of the effective groups that I know of help to match individuals with scarce skills, not easily found in the local communities (engineering, medicine, information technology), with acute needs locally. Think Doctors Without Borders, Engineers Without Borders, etc. If you have an advanced/technical skill set, consider finding organizations that function in this way. If you are bringing nothing but good intentions, just be aware that the greatest (and potentially only) contribution you are making to the local community is the money that you spend."

Leila de Bruyne, founder of an educational program in Kenya called Flying Kites, makes a similar argument in an interview with Boston public radio station WBUR: "Unless you're a surgeon or a billionaire, you're not going to have a meaningful, transformative impact on the communities that you're working with, but they might have an impact on you, and that's where the opportunity comes to actually make something of it."

The most effective voluntourism projects combine the small contributions of numerous volunteers into an effort that is meaningful and sustainable in the long term, but for each individual traveler, the biggest impact of your trip might be on your own behavior.

Volunteering gives you a chance to learn about a place and interact with the locals in a way that simply lying on a beach does not -- and it can be fun too! Your encounters might even change your understanding of the world. Someone who's been impacted by a voluntourism experience might go home and take further action -- donating to or raising funds for a charitable organization, advocating for political change, or even volunteering in a community closer to home. In this way a voluntourism experience can have ripple effects for years to come.

The Dangers of Voluntourism

Many well-meaning travelers show up, volunteer for a few days and go home convinced that they've made a difference in the world, but their presence may sometimes hurt, not help the community they're trying to serve. Writer and entrepreneur Pippa Biddle shares the following anecdote from a trip to Tanzania:

"Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students, were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. ... Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level."

Volunteering at orphanages can be even more insidious, says Powell: "Orphanages are likely the most damaging voluntourism option you could choose. ... Many orphanages often verge on child trafficking (or go all the way there). This has been a particularly hot-button issue in Nepal." (We've seen similar stories in Cambodia and elsewhere.) Powell also notes that children at orphanages can easily get attached to volunteers who then leave them, creating a cycle of emotional damage.

One quality that makes voluntourism trips appealing to many travelers -- the limited time commitment -- is also an inherent weakness. Most voluntourists don't stay long enough to fully comprehend the complex problems affecting the local population, much less to help solve them in a meaningful way. Without a nuanced understanding of what you're committing to, you might end up doing busy work that makes you feel good about yourself but doesn't actually make any impact.

Traveling in a Developing Country: 11 Dos and Don'ts

What Should I Ask Before Booking a Voluntourism Trip?

To avoid some of these pitfalls, it's important to do your homework before signing up for a voluntourism program. Powell recommends asking the following questions about the organization you plan to work with:

- Do the activities during my trip displace the potential for local labor to deliver the same services at a lower cost, with more efficiency and while creating jobs for the local population -- or would the work not be possible without volunteers?

- Where does the organization get its staff, and how are they paid/treated?

- What is the organization's relationship with the local community -- do they work collaboratively or has the organization "inserted itself"? Do the locals help decide which projects are prioritized and how they're implemented?

- What are the organization's long-term intentions? For example, are they building up new infrastructure (and if so, are they using local labor), and do they plan to sustain that infrastructure long-term?

lion cub africa conservation volunteer

We also recommend looking at the organization's finances and checking out exactly where your program fee goes. Research how long the organization has been around and whether the bulk of its revenue is put back into the community.

Try to find as much information as possible about the organization beyond its own website. Have past volunteers left reviews on sites such as VolunteerForever.com? If it's based in the U.S., is the organization well rated by CharityNavigator.org? Has it won any responsible tourism awards?

Finally, be sure to ask yourself a few questions, including why you're undertaking this project, what skills you bring to the table and whether your presence would have more impact than a monetary donation.

You can find more useful questions in this volunteer checklist.

Which Voluntourism Projects Should I Avoid?

As noted above, volunteering at an orphanage usually does more harm than good, and construction projects aren't recommended for travelers without experience. (Even if you do have construction skills, it's likely that local laborers could do the job just as easily.)

Many people are also moved to volunteer in the aftermath of natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis, but unless you have very specific skills (such as medicine and/or disaster response), you are more likely to get in the way than you are to help. In these cases, a donation is your best bet.

It's also important not to take on responsibilities that you wouldn't feel qualified to do at home. Says de Bruyne: "Red flags should come up if your 16-year-old high school kid is going to be involved in sensitive social work, or acting in a clinic as a nurse, or ... taking over a whole classroom. I think that you should be working to support a staff that exists. And if you're not, and you're taking on a different role, then to me that would be alarming and not something that I would want to participate in."

So where can you start if you're looking for projects that won't do harm? The Guardian recommends several organizations that do meaningful and ethical work, including Travel-PeopleandPlaces.co.uk, BlueVentures.org and GVIusa.com. U.S. News & World Report has a list of six volunteer vacations to experience.

10 Hardcore Tips for Frequent Travelers

Other Voluntourism Tips

Prepare for your trip by learning as much as you can about the place you're visiting, including a few phrases of the local language, the region's cultural norms and the background of the project to which you're contributing. This will help you acclimatize more quickly and make the most of your limited time.

Respect the dignity and privacy of the people you meet. Says Powell, "If a stranger walked up to your child and began taking pictures in the streets of New York, you would likely feel uncomfortable and violated -- yet many think it is just fine to pick up a stranger's child and snap selfies when traveling in developing countries." Don't take photos of anyone without permission, and keep in mind that your experience could easily turn exploitative if you're more concerned with posting to Facebook than carrying out your volunteer activities.

vietnam beach cleaning

Beyond Voluntourism: How Else Can I Help?

Powell argues that unless you have skills that fit the specific needs of a community, making a donation to an effective grassroots organization will likely bring more benefit than your presence. He recommends Kiva.org and GlobalGiving.org as two websites that allow individuals to donate directly to projects and organizations doing good work around the world.

Powell also notes that any vacation you take can benefit the local economy, even if you're not volunteering. "Spend money!" he says. "It may not give the 'warm fuzzy feeling' that you might get from driving some nails or teaching English, but think of what you would prefer in their circumstances. Support local artisans, kids who 'guard' your vehicle while it's parked, maids in your hotel room, etc.

"And don't negotiate too aggressively. That 20 percent you are negotiating off your taxi fare or a souvenir for your niece is 1/3 of a latte to you, but may be a sizable portion of net wages for the person across from you. There is nothing wrong with haggling, but fully 'winning' the negotiation is an often hollow victory."

For the most economic benefit, follow the principles of socially responsible travel, including staying in locally owned hotels, eating at locally owned restaurants and buying directly from local artisans and shops.

Are you interested in taking a volunteer vacation?

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--written by Sarah Schlichter

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