A much-needed debate about voluntourism is taking off on the web. It includes voices from the industry, academics, travel professionals, and volunteers themselves. From “The White Tourist’s Burden” to “Lions, Zebras, and African Children,” at the heart of these stories is the notion of inexperienced volunteers who use their privilege to go abroad for their own egos, and who are doing more harm than good on the ground.
The critiques are valid: I’ve seen many of the examples cited in the debate too many times in the field. From crumbling libraries to brothel rescues gone wrong, good intentions can create a lot of problems for communities. In fact, I can list many times where things went wrong and far fewer times when things actually worked out the way we initially planned.
This conversation is an important one, but my concern is that the student who has always dreamed of going abroad, or the retiree who just wants to learn and do something different, or the researcher who wants to go deeper into a community will feel paralyzed by this discussion and decide not to pursue travel or volunteering at all.
While we do need to note the critiques of the volunteer and social good industry and increase awareness of how they operate, we should also talk about the complexity of the volunteer sector, instead of only placing the blame on volunteers. We need to examine the entire system of “doing good,” not just condemn individuals. By having a broader discussion about the systems behind the critiques, we can help create more effective and impactful volunteer and travel opportunities in the long run.
Having spent my career in the social good sector and devoted many of my columns to raising awareness about our impact on the world, I can see the debate from both sides of the issue; but it boils down to a lot more than just misguided good intentions. Here are some of the larger factors at play that we should be talking about to take the conversation to the next level.
It’s Not Just a Western Problem
At an English camp in Thailand run by international schools, students from the city travel to small villages to teach rural people English language skills.
But if you go to one of these camps, you’ll see that it is not conducted in English, but Thai, that there are more pictures taken than there are lessons taught, and that the villagers are basically going through the motions of the day waiting for gifts. When the students leave, no skills have been improved, no exchange has been fostered, and empty potato chip and 7-11 bags litter the village.
The voluntourism debate has addressed identity, privilege, race, and class in a variety of ways, and always points out instances of the Western tourist going abroad and making mistakes. But, as this story—and countless others I could tell you—shows, its not just a Westerner’s problem, and its not just “Little White Girls.” With rising middle classes around the world, more schools, companies, and individuals are volunteering, and their models are just as broken. From Bulgaria to the Philippines, there are local volunteer initiatives going on, which face many of the same mistakes and challenges Western volunteers do.
And often times, organizations that host volunteers and do social good are problematic, too, from well-known human trafficking organizations that exaggerate stories in Cambodia to a complete lack of accounting for earthquake donations in China, this challenge facing the industry isn’t a Western problem—it’s a global problem. We need to have a conversation about the culture of “doing good” around the world, and the debates that we’re having need to engage and demand accountability of every volunteer and organization. Not just in the West.
It’s About the Money
We have all been hit up in fundraising appeals, whether it is from aspiring volunteers or charity organizations themselves. Fact is, organizations need money to run their operations, and the “make a difference” marketing is a large part of that. But, it sends the message that there are quick fixes for big social issues, and this kind of marketing fuels the social good business (not to mention, raises a lot of money)—reinforcing the idea that if you just have good intentions, change will happen overnight.
In a way, the volunteering industry does the same thing. Because volunteering has become a rite of passage for many young people, there is an entire sector that works to capitalize on their ideas of giving back. Yes, volunteers may save the organization money by bringing in a skill that the organization otherwise could not pay for, but often, people pay for an experience to volunteer, even if there might not be a clear project on the ground or if they are a drain on resources. Many organizations keep their struggling volunteer programs simply because it looks good for the bottom line.
Charities need to raise money to do their work on their ground, and volunteers can help be a part of that puzzle, both for a public relations image, and to drive more donations back to the organization. And we need to be realistic that the social good industry as a whole depends on its fundraising to survive. So, it’s important to highlight the fact that some volunteers “pay for the privilege,” but we also need to start talking about how that money could be used more effectively and if the voluntourist industry can strive for greater financial accountability and transparency.
Even the Best Planned Projects Don’t Always Work Out
If you’ve ever had a research project or developed a business plan, you know that things change as you go through the process, and rarely will things be implemented the same way when you started. The same is true with volunteering. The social good industry often tells us how easy it is to be empowered and make a difference—but it doesn’t equip us with the understanding and skills to deal when complications arise (and they usually do).
For example, during my time in Burma, there was a little boy at a local school who needed surgery so he wouldn’t lose his hearing. The problem seemed easy enough; raise the money for the surgery, and he would be able to hear and lead a normal life.
The reality, though, was much different. After raising the money and seeking further tests before surgery, the local clinic found that his hearing loss was inevitable and inoperable—and he could not go to any bigger and better hospitals because he was a refugee and would likely get deported.
You could probably tell me I should have had a strategic plan in place or had a team of experts to consult, and I did. But the reality is, because of conflict, human rights, and my naivety, I had to tell a child that in fact, he wouldn’t get his hearing back as promised.
Even the most well thought out strategic projects that support “responsible tourism” will not always work as planned. The idea that, “If I go in with good intentions and do this work, things will be better,” rarely works. And that’s the hard part to confront; that change happens slowly and often banally, without the “lives are forever changed” that the industry sells us.
But it’s important. If the volunteer conversation started to address the complex nature of making an impact—not market that change happens with good intentions—we’d all be able to take a more realistic look at the issues facing our world, and really make a difference.
One Experience is Not More “Authentic” Than Another
There is an odd unspoken hierarchy in the travel and social good world; that those who work internationally or travel a lot more will be better volunteers or development professionals. We write and talk about finding the most culturally immersive travel, romanticizing even the most difficult situations as part of the “authentic” experience.
Problem is, when we glamorize hardship as authentic travel, we run the risk of setting a precedent that’s really hard to live up to for people just starting out. If I’m standing on the roadside in Chennai in unbearable heat, swatting giant mosquitos while trying to flag down an autorickshaw, and I have food poisoning, that is not a rite of passage—that’s horrible, and it’s not something I’m going to take to Twitter with or a story I will try to “one up” someone with at a travel conference. But, as Rafia Zakaria points out, the message of “I chose hardship and survived it” is pervasive in these volunteer industry narratives.
At the Women’s Travel Fest, the Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown made a refreshing statement for the volunteers and travelers everywhere; that it doesn’t matter if you perceive yourself as a tourist or a traveler, the most important thing is that you were brave enough to get out there and try something new. And, as Daniela Papi points out in her recent Huffington Post article, that there really isn’t much distinction between a volunteer and a voluntourist—its just about the way we frame it.
Both are going to deal with the same issues in program management and project implementation, and both will face similar challenges on the ground. My advice is: Be aware of your presence and your impact, and be realistic about your work. But also know that no one traveler is better than another.
The Industry Needs to Change, Not Just Individuals
After working in nonprofits or social good, you can actually become really jaded. When you see things that don’t operate as they should, that organizations can’t always sustain themselves, and that the idea of “do no harm” is often impossible, it’s all quite daunting.
So, what do we do?
Films like Gringo Trails highlight the impacts of travel and tourism around the world and begin the discussion that while people need to change, the travel industry needs to evolve as well. Responsible travel policies have been created but not well implemented, and volunteer organizations don’t always adopt best practices even if they have guiding principles on their websites. Just because an organization has the clearest mission statement or the best intentions doesn’t always translate over to good work.
But the reality is, people will still travel and volunteer, people will still mess up, and lots of money will change hands. Organizations will need to begin to address this, and a system of accountability should be put in place for both big and small organizations. In the short term, though, maybe it’s time for volunteers to stay aware and informed about all facets of the debate. A good starting point is asking yourself these questions if you are going to volunteer abroad.
There are also lots of organizations who are promoting thoughtful, nuanced work—organizations like World Learning, Atlantic Impact, and The Wandering Scholar—and I encourage you to check them out. The approach is honest and realistic and focuses on individual transformation as opposed to instant change.
And that’s just it: We need to start being honest about why we travel and why we volunteer. Because the reality is that travel, at its core, has always been more about ourselves than about anyone else. Lets acknowledge that volunteering isn’t so different.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author