Thoughts on ‘Voluntourism’

voluntourismThere is a new trend in tourism known as ‘voluntourism’. In his article, “Can white people do development,” Kevin Hawkins said, “Voluntourism can be a dirty word in the aid and development sector; the idea that you can walk into a rural community and make a sustainable difference in a couple of days is a crude and unrealistic perception, reflecting a typically colonialist Western mindset.”

In his article, “Does ‘voluntourism’ do more harm than good,” Richard Stupart poses the question, “Anything is better than nothing … isn’t it?”  He says, “The desire of wealthy first-worlders to do good can be treated as a demand for which volunteerism products can be supplied, and that some minor good — a painted wall or a child smiling for a day — is better than no good at all.”

Stupart continues, “[The] view — that development needs can be packaged as a tour opportunity and sold for profit — augurs a race to the bottom in ethical behavior… Flexible service projects that allow wealthy tourists to see the locals smile in exchange for minimal hard work are catnip for traveling narcissists… In general, given a choice between spending money to go abroad and engage in a project with a local community for a few weeks, or donating the same amount to an established development organization already present in the area, it should be obvious that staying at home and sending your money instead will almost always be more helpful.”

Richard then poses the thought that the real ones benefiting from ‘voluntourism’ are the volunteers themselves.  He says, “…the experience of volunteering is not a one-way street entirely focused on the experience of the recipients to the exclusion of all else. In the process of volunteering, the privileged first-worlder is also being helped — albeit in a less obvious way — towards understanding in very personal terms the lives of the less privileged with whom they share the planet. It’s difficult to measure the value of this first-hand understanding against the wish to help needy communities as efficiently as possible. Yet opening the eyes of those of us wealthy enough to afford the luxury of travel to the realities of inequality is a necessary first step if longer-term solutions to poverty, housing and food insecurity are to ever be found. And nothing can bring home the emotional reality of these challenges quite as well as engaging with them for yourself.”  You can read the rest of Stupart’s article here.

Voluntourism may only have benefit in opening our eyes.  Having our eyes opened is a necessary step. The next step is to take some well thought out steps to bringing REAL help to communities.

Kevin Hawkins said, “[Foreigners] need to stop underestimating the capacity of local people in lifting themselves out of poverty… Foreigners not only need to be able to bring skills, ideas, and knowledge abroad, but they need to bring skills, ideas, and knowledge that they can transfer to others. There’s nothing sustainable about a white doctor coming into a country, fixing a few problems, and leaving without having trained a local doctor or six in the process. As my earlier example explained, a foreigner can’t expect to be the key driver of change in a country where they can’t speak the local lexicon, don’t understand the customs, and have a Wikipedia knowledge of the history.”  You can read the rest of Hawkins’ article here.

Foreigners can sometimes confuse lack of knowledge with a lack of ability. So much money is wasted by not understanding the needs of people.  How much better is it to take some time to FIRST learn the needs of a community before trying to help them?  Then, assist them in a way that does not create a dependency on outside aid. This helps to build strong, proud communities.


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