More harm than good? Why we need to be wary of ‘voluntourism’

Laura Davidson

Another post popped up on my Facebook news feed last week as I was mindlessly scrolling through the endless stream of cat videos, ‘life hacks’ and surprise engagements that the social media site has become. But I digress, that’s a rant in itself for another time. This was one of those statuses asking Facebook friends to ‘sponsor me’ to go and work in a school in Tanzania this summer. You know the ones, they vary from building houses in a remote village of a third-world country, to trekking Machu Picchu, to working on turtle conservation; there are innumerable initiatives and organisations aiming to get Westerners to pay considerable sums to apparently do some good in a developing country.

No doubt many of these initiatives do contribute towards beneficial and sometimes charitable aims. But how can we possibly distinguish, over a Google search, the genuinely worthwhile causes from the schemes set up to attract foreigners, to the potential detriment of the local economy and population? It’s difficult to attach meaningful numbers to the voluntourism industry, but in 2015 Reuters reported an estimate put forward by US sustainable tourism expert Nancy Gard McGehee, that around 10 million volunteers a year were spending up to $2 billion on ‘travel with a purpose’. However, in the same year, Wilson Quarterly suggested the value of the industry was a staggering $173bn. How do we know where this money is going?

A spokesperson for British charity Globalteer, which lists on its websites projects such as marine conservation in Borneo or supporting women’s empowerment in Cambodia at a cost of around £700 per placement, said,
“One of the challenges facing people wishing to volunteer responsibly is that there is no independent quality standard, no recognized regulatory body.”

“There are small local outfits as well as big corporations who see volunteering as a way of driving profits rather than an integral part of a long term strategy for communities with real needs. At best this can make volunteering a waste of time and at worst it can actually be harmful.”

The undisputed queen of Twitter, J.K. Rowling, is perhaps the most high-profile person to speak out about the potential problems linked to voluntourism, after being approached last year by a charity offering volunteering opportunities in orphanages in deprived areas, asking her to share their work. “#Voluntourism is one of drivers of family break up in very poor countries. It incentivises ‘orphanages’ that are run as businesses,” she tweeted, highlighting also her concern that “one of the advantages listed for your orphanage volunteer experience is that it will give you a CV ‘distinguisher’”. The author’s own charity, Lumos, which she expressly stated does not support voluntourism, is dedicated to supporting the eight million children living in institutions worldwide.

I myself have taken part in one of these initiatives and feel incredibly conflicted about the experience. In the summer of 2015, after my university finals, I spent a month in Sri Lanka volunteering at a specialist orphanage for children with a wide range of mental and physical disabilities. Although I did a lot of research into the most reputable organisations and the type of work that I believed would be in some way valuable, I must confess that I am still unsure as to what impact, good or bad, if any, this might have had on the children and the people working at the orphanage. Nobody who saw the severity of some of the children’s conditions, which could warrant round-the-clock care back in the UK, and the multitude of tasks carried out by the staff – cooking, cleaning, feeding, teaching – could deny that the orphanage was cripplingly understaffed to meet the needs of the children. In this sense, as much as the volunteers were an extra pair of hands to feed a child with impaired mobility or chewing function, or hold a crying infant, I suppose we did serve a tiny useful purpose.

However, I was there for a month, which is in fact longer than most of my cohort were spending at the orphanage. And then what? I get to fly back to London, safe in the knowledge that I, for a time, spent time with highly underprivileged children and can tick that off the bucket list? As soon as the volunteer leaves, the staff are back to only being able to rely on one another and simply not having enough time and resources to properly care for the children.

One girl volunteering at the same time as me was so overwhelmed by the children’s conditions, behaviour and how little they had, that she burst into tears because she didn’t know how to respond to them, and while it was certainly an emotional experience, there is simply no time in the environment we were in, for people who can’t cope with it. As harsh as that sounds, if you couldn’t get on with it and make yourself useful, you were just getting in the way.

And what about the lasting impact on the children? Particularly for those of a young age who do not have a constant parental figure, it may not take long for an attachment to form between them and a volunteer. Then one day, you don’t come back anymore, and that child may experience abandonment all over again. The more I consider that prospect, the more convinced I am of the potential exploitation caused by the industry.

Are there any better alternatives for people who genuinely want to contribute to a worthwhile cause in a developing country without causing damage? It may be more effective to seek out advocacy programmes from our home countries in order to work towards reform, and raise awareness of the factors and policies responsible for global poverty. There are organisations campaigning for tax justice to spread revenue more fairly across the population in developing countries, and to hold powerful corporations and financial institutions to account, or lobbying Western governments to change aggressive international trade and agricultural policies.

The website GiveWell lists charities that are the most cost-effective with donations, thus providing the most benefit to the causes they support. This may not have the same gap year anecdote potential worth or instant feel-good effect, but is more likely to contribute towards a long-term beneficial impact.

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