Voluntourism: service or self-service?

From trying to build safer communities to going overseas for mission trips, there are hundreds of organizations that advocate their overseas opportunities to help communities in need. However, is the work being done by these organizations harming these communities rather than helping them?

This is where the term “voluntourism” emerges. Projects that target well-off individuals and families looking to enact so-called “change” might have ulterior motives for bringing voluntourists into these rural areas. While these well-off families believe that they are implementing change, in reality these communities profit off of the tourism that these volunteers bring while suppressing the change that the short-term visitors enact and, ultimately, worsen the state of the communities that they were originally trying to help.

Instead of improving these communities, many of these short-term trips place constraints on target areas that worsen their situations. Hot spots for mission trips and other projects are rural communities, often with children that are in need of help. These areas are also hot spots for human trafficking, with the intent of bringing voluntourists to these areas to increase economic gain. “Orphanage voluntourism” is a real thing, too, where children who are not even orphans are suppressed to attract these supposedly well-meaning voluntourist groups. Even the mere presence of these organizations reinforces paternalism in these communities. This can shift the mindset of these communities into constantly being grateful that some “higher power” is coming to help, rather than helping them succeed in doing these acts on their own.

Research studies also argue these voluntourism trips benefit the facilitating organization and the voluntourist more than the communities that they come to help, indicating that the motives for these short-term projects are faulty, as they are often about the voluntourist “feeling good” about themselves, rather than focusing on these areas that need real help and teaching the citizens of these communities valuable skills that can help influence the area for years to come. This is a prime example of the “savior complex,” and is evident in many of these voluntourism organizations that enact short-term trips to pursue some tangible goal in the community rather than pursuing possibly intangible goals that truly benefit the community’s members.

I’m not saying that seeking opportunities to volunteer in underdeveloped communities or searching for ways to better societies is not something we all should actively seek. Instead, what we as young adults who want to improve our world need to do is delve deeper into the needs of the communities — as well as the projects in which we participate. Choosing the right volunteer project is crucial to enacting the right change. When searching for a project or an organization, focus less on the voluntourism and more on the volunteering. Ask, who is organizing this project? What is their motivation? If the organization blatantly says “no experience required,” ask yourself, “why are they outsourcing help when they could use local resources? Is it just because they are looking for economic gain?” What are the motives for going overseas, and what are the motives for these project organizations for outsourcing help? Try to make time for longer trips, where you can actually see the progress being made and help implement it into their society. The purpose of this article is not to say that all outreach programs are malicious; however, before jumping headfirst into joining a project, do a little research first. It could be the difference between damaging the society you’re visiting, and enacting real change.