Perhaps the most recent iteration of the enduring problem faced by the development community, so eloquently presented by Ivan Illich in “To Hell With Good Intentions,” is the debate over what has been termed “voluntourism.” Essentially, this refers to well-intentioned trips by enthusiastic, generally young, individuals from wealthy countries to developing communities to volunteer, but are these experiences positive? There are several issues at the heart of this question (for a spirited debate, see http://mitpsc.mit.edu/globalchallenge/?p=335), and separating them out will help to determine what the appropriate position and response is. I’m not going to presume to tell any of you whether to go on a voluntourism trip. That’s your decision to make, but I’d just like to encourage you to consider the potential impacts of your actions before choosing a program, or deciding whether to go at all.
The first issue is the motivation of the voluntourist. Are voluntourists there to really serve the community, or to get a more “authentic” experience of a different culture and community? Perhaps they are simply trying to feel good about themselves, content in their knowledge that they made a difference. My guess would be that the majority has a mixture of these motivations playing into the desire to go, and it’s not possible or fair to make sweeping generalizations about the motivations of all volunteers. When considering these service abroad opportunities, it’s crucial to examine one’s own motivations. If you only want to go to be able to say “I made a difference,” then stay home. Voluntouring should be more about the making a difference part, not about the “I.” The developing world should not be considered a playground for the wealthy who want to do something. This is one of the biggest critiques of Nicholas Kristoff’s “Do It Yourself Aid”, which holds that aid is not, and should not, be about the donor, but rather about the recipient.
This issue of the focus of aid segues nicely into the next issue at hand: what the voluntourists do on the ground. All too often, these individuals are unskilled at what the community needs, and so they can potentially do harm by replacing local workers. Let’s face it, somebody who has been doing manual labor for his or her whole life is going to be better at digging ditches than you or I, and such individuals definitely don’t need us to come take their jobs in order to “help.” Instead of crafting programs around local community needs, programs are often designed to allow the volunteer to do a short-term project, which does not do anyone much good. In that case, the money used for these projects is put to much better use by simply being donated to relevant projects, which creates more sustainable use in the community. For example, rather than having students with no experience in teaching ESL volunteer for a short amount of time, paying the salary of a local, trained English teacher does more sustainable good. Very simply, programs often attempt to create short-term solutions, which are catered towards the volunteer, to these long-term problems that are the reality of the communities. However, some volunteer abroad programs are good at using volunteers with skills that the community desires and doesn’t have, which can have more sustainable impacts. (For a listing of some organizations that do this, see http://www.globalpovertyproject.com/blog/view/302). It’s also crucial to monitor the impact of these interventions in order to avoid repeating the same harmful mistakes. Perhaps the biggest flaw of voluntourism is the limited time horizon. Volunteers are there for a short amount of time, doing projects that are likely to die with their departure. Thus, organizations often have no incentive to ensure that their projects are doing well.
Even in “best-case” scenarios, it’s important to conceptualize the experience as a partnership, rather than a westerner coming in as an expert to save the day. There’s often a kind of “moral imperialism,” in which we assume that because we’re from a wealthy, educated country, we can enter a region without any knowledge about the local community or culture and just fix all the problems. As William Easterly argues, development is a bottom-up process, in which the local communities are the ones fixing their problems, and our role is merely one of support.
On the flip side, however, there is much to be said for these experiences. The enthusiasm of volunteers has a benefit all of its own. Generally they return not only better informed, but also capable of serving as advocates for and stakeholders in the development of the community and the world. Often, volunteers find the experience humbling, and return to their daily routines with a new awareness of their lives and how they fit into the world around them. There are countless anecdotes of development professionals who got their starts in similar programs, and of programs that really did have significant impacts on the communities that volunteers were working with. To sum up, I’d like to encourage potential “voluntourists” to be honest and humble about their skills and motivations and how those will impact the communities they are trying to help; to take off the rose-colored glasses, but not to replace them with blinders and ignore the potential good in volunteering abroad. Voluntouring really can be life-changing, and, when done right, it can perhaps go beyond making the volunteer feel good.
By Laura Dick
Further debate on Voluntourism can be found at the following: