Written by Virginia Baumgarten
Every year, over 10 million international travelers, typically from North America and Europe, travel abroad to volunteer in impoverished communities (The Guardian, 2021). Students, youth groups, and other well-intended participants construct buildings, assist at orphanages, and pursue other short-term development projects in an effort to give back. Yet, to what extent do these volunteers actually benefit host communities, economically and socially?
This phenomenon is known as “voluntourism”, a combination of the words “volunteer” and “tourism”. As a $2 billion industry, voluntourism is one of the fastest growing trends in travel (Driving Change, 2021). Volunteer agencies advertise these short-term mission trips as an opportunity for participants to broaden their worldview and put their altruistic desires into action. While these trips may provide participants with life changing experiences, the opposite is often observed in the communities impacted. Rather, voluntourism is imperialistic in nature. This practice economically disenfranchises local communities, creates relationships dependent on aid reliance, inefficiently manages resources and perpetuates harmful stereotypes.
The imperialistic nature of voluntourism is apparent in the exploitation of the communities they aim to help. While volunteers often have good intentions, the voluntourism industry sustains practices that hinder local economies rather than stimulating them. When organizations hire local workers to complete development projects, they pay for labor and the profit margin is smaller. However, when agencies recruit volunteers who are willing to pay to complete these same jobs, they profit off the impoverished state of local communities by attracting volunteers. This not only deprives local workers of job opportunities, but builds economic dependence on aid, disempowering vulnerable economies.
Even skilled volunteers, such as medical students, can cause disruption. Newsweek Columnist Maya Wesby describes a situation in Ghana where locals became dependent on the medication and medical services provided by volunteers. This free care caused them to opt out of medical insurance, hurting local healthcare and insurance providers, and increasing the locals’ dependence on foreigners (Newsweek, 2015). Because these trips are designed for the short-term, participants don’t recognize the harm they are imposing on communities over time.
Additionally, in terms of economically benefiting host communities, voluntourism is incredibly inefficient in its management of expenses paid by participants. While volunteer agencies often advertise a desperate need for volunteers, costs for these programs are far from cheap, ranging between a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars, depending on the program’s duration. However, while participants are committing a large sum of money towards these altruistic efforts, only about 18% of funds raised are allocated to the recipient community, with the other 82% is put towards travel expenses (Anderson, 28-37). While this provides minimal benefit for the host community, it provides larger benefit for both the participant and voluntourism industry. Of course, it’s important to consider how participants would have managed these trip expenses if they did not travel abroad, as their money may not have been committed towards charitable efforts. Additionally, personally experiencing the impoverished conditions of these communities may encourage participants to donate more money. However, if donating a small fraction of money is contingent on spending thousands of dollars elsewhere, this further highlights the real motivation behind the organization of these trips: self-fulfillment.
Socially, voluntourism programs provide both participants and local community members with a stereotyped, flawed sense of reality. The design of these programs perpetuates white saviorism, the problematic idea that minority communities must depend on white individuals to be “rescued” or “saved”. Because international volunteers typically go abroad for a week or two, they often pursue low-skilled tasks, such as basic construction, distributing food, tutoring children, etc. Therefore, the ability for volunteers to make a valuable difference, such as by helping alleviate poverty or dismantling the systems that maintain poverty, is limited. However, when unskilled white volunteers travel abroad to perform basic tasks, this promotes the toxic belief that locals can’t complete basic tasks themselves. Not only do locals develop a false sense of inferiority, but the volunteers develop a false sense of superiority, believing that locals are helpless without their assistance. Without recognizing that these programs have little humanitarian purpose, and are largely designed to benefit them, participants develop a flawed, dangerous perception of the developing world. This perception reinforces the stereotypes that high-income nations hold against impoverished communities, causing them to spread these false beliefs outside of the host country.
It’s important to note that volunteers with genuine motivation to help aren’t entirely at fault for volunteering, as they are largely misled by the agencies who recruit them. However, by understanding the inefficient and manipulative nature of voluntourism, we can pursue more effective methods of empowering impoverished communities. The most effective method? Donation, by far. While less glamorous than volunteering abroad, directly assisting local communities financially, such as through providing microloans to individuals or funding local projects, can directly empower locals to pursue development projects without the assistance of unskilled international volunteers. Not only can this spur independent economic development and ensure efficient management of funds, it can also help reverse white-savior tropes promoted through voluntourism.
Bansal, S. (2021, November 29). Do No Harm: The Dark Side of Voluntourism. Driving Change. https://drivingchange.org/do-no-harm-the-dark-side-of-voluntourism/
G.S. (2021, June 17). Voluntourism: new book explores how volunteer trips harm rather than help. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/jun/10/voluntourism-new-book-explores-how-volunteer-trips-harm-rather-than-help
Wesby, M. (2016, April 14). The Exploitative Selfishness of Volunteering Abroad. Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/exploitative-selfishness-volunteering-abroad-363768
Anderson, Eric & Kim, Ricky & Larios, Kelly. (2019). Voluntourism: The Economic Benefit and Societal Costs of Short-Term Mission Trips. 28-37.