Unofficial Voluntourism Training: Doing good without causing harm

by Phoebe Droz



Voluntourism is exploding as a travel trend. 35% of adults in 2012 said that they would like to try a holiday involving a voluntourism component. No longer do people simply want to go on vacation. Rather, they are signing up, either through organizations or independently to serve abroad while they are on a short vacation. This kind of vacation is changing the way that tourists stimulate the economy of the country when they are vacationing. As they stay at resorts and go to dinners out, they are stimulating the tourism industry, they are bringing in foreign money and paying the local taxes. The new travel trend also supports non-profits in the country, and supports the people in functional ways, whether that be through the construction of houses or the giving of resources. Despite these benefits, one “problem with voluntourism is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs,” said writer Rafia Zakaria in her article, The white tourist’s burden.


Zakaria, although generalizing a bit, has “a valid critique” said Cris Tiesort, a staff member at Whitworth University who has been on and led many short term volunteer trips, “and it is a critique that is often given to short term missions as well.” The millennial generation volunteers more than the generations immediately proceeding it, so finding ways to not only do good work, but do that good work responsibly is important.


When Tiesort leads trips he said that he “acknowledges and makes it clear to those he is leading,” that he is striving for “awareness and transformation of the people helping.” Whitworth senior, and recent speaker on the “False Promises of Voluntourism,” Ellie Probus even commented, voluntourism trips “can be a really good growing experience for you. It can be absolutely life changing for you, and that’s awesome. You learn about other cultures, you learn about yourself, you gain a passion for service, and that’s great, but we need to realize that it’s probably a lot more about us, then the people we are going to serve.” Training part one: as a voluntourist, recognize that the greatest impact may not being on the community you are serving and become okay with that idea.


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However, recognizing that the greatest impact is on the volunteer, does not mean disregarding the community that is being served. Voluntourism can often be informed by the volunteers rather than by the community that the organization is trying to help. This is seen well in places like Siem Reap in Cambodia. Wealthy travelers come into the country and have intentions of supporting orphanages by paying to play with the orphans. However, “[a] system has emerged in which parents will rent their children out for the day to play with gullible backpackers, creating fraudulent orphanages in response to visitors’ demand for them,” writes CNN reporter Richard Stupart in his piece, Does ‘volunteerism’ do more hard than good? This is a case when the volunteer has become a consumer. The volunteer is looking for a specific experience, and organizations look to fulfill that experience rather than help the community they are serving in. In our quest to help others, we are losing sight of their needs and focusing on our own.


Probus commented later, “People need to take some time to do their research to find out: has this organization that they are going with been around for a while? How transparent are they with their financial statements? Is there indication that they are actually helping the community? Yeah, its boring, but we need to take our time, and do our homework. Do the research and make sure that our work is actually effective and that we aren’t actually harming other people.” Training Part Two: Research the organization that you are volunteering with. Do not be a consumer of volunteer work but rather a consumer of the non-profit’s ideas and the country’s culture.


“I am embarrassed that my work is so negligible: I sift sand at half the speed of the Haitians, and my hammering skills are laughable,” writer Dorinda Elliot explained in her piece, Giving Back: A Special Report on Volunteer Vacations. The work that she was participating in, was undeniably helpful, she was participating in the rebuilding of houses in a place that really needed those houses rebuilt. The downfall of the whole situation was that it was only her money that was needed. “[T]o my alarm, I learn that the construction work stops each time the Americans depart because of lack of funds—leaving the Haitians waiting around until another group of “saviors” arrives,” Elliot comments. Probus agrees, “in many ways this can be demeaning to the people.”


When entering a community to serve, there must be some sort of self-sufficiency or role that is given to the community that is being served. If self-sufficiency is not created by the organizations than dependency is being fostered, along with an element of dehumanization (i.e. you need my help because you cannot do this for yourself). Training Part Three: “Generally I think a good principle is to try not to go on trips where you are doing things that people [in the country] could easily do for themselves,” concluded Probus. 


Voluntourism is “growing every year. It’s becoming more common, and because of that it is growing as an industry,” said Probus. As this industry grows, Elliot wants perspective volutourists to recognize “the surprising amount of damage that can be done with the very best of intentions.” To combat this damage, voluntourits must be intentional and thoughtful about training and preparing themselves so they can do good without causing harm.

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