Volunteer tourism, increasingly referred to as voluntourism, is a form of tourism in which international volunteers participate in voluntary work abroad.
Every year millions of people, from all over the globe volunteer their time to these international projects/programmes. voluntourism has exploded in popularity over the past few years and is now one of the fastest growing industries in the tourism sector.
With millions of international volunteers joining projects every year, it would be logical to assume that the tiny differences each of these volunteers make would create a larger impact overall. However, despite the amazing charities and international development organisations that welcome international volunteers every year, voluntourism has an increasingly bad reputation due to the minority of unethical agencies and websites which advertise 'gap year' projects and international volunteering projects abroad. This, along with the negative media coverage it conjures, is creating a generalisation about international volunteer work and clouding the positive work of voluntourism.
Additionally, with your newsfeed being bombarded with selfies of your friends with African kids and photos of elephant riding in Thailand, its easy to develop a negative stereotype of voluntourism. The infamous 'gap yah' video has further shaped attitudes about young, middle-class travellers thinking they are changing the world through volunteering for 1-2 weeks then spending the rest of their trip "chundering everywhere".
Social Media has exacerbated the 'white saviour complex' such as the satirical 'Barbie Saviour' Instagram account which manages to encompass (quite wittily) all the negative aspects of voluntourism.
While the man who holds my heart is across the ocean, I still must carry on my important work. Yes. Even when it is hard. So I spent my Valentine's Day doing my part to end world hunger AND teaching the villagers to read..one candy heart at a time! #iwillbeyoursaviorbaby #ifyouwillyoubemyorphantine #sureJesuslovesyou #butiloveyoumore #fortheyneverknewtruelove #untilme #oneheartonelove #Kenevenshippedmeroses #butmamastillneedsherchocolate #immakingeducationnutritious #waityouknowhowtoreadalready? #didialreadycometothisvillagebeforeandteachyou?
So, considering the above negative portrayals, can voluntourism ever be a good thing?
The answer is yes! Despite these negative portrayals showing the bad side of voluntourism (which should definitely be avoided) this does not mean that people should not be international volunteers; they should work to counteract this negative image of voluntourism by being informed and researching the volunteer work they are going to do.
Ensure that your voluntourism is ethical, and counteract this negative portrayal, by considering the following checklist:
- Ensure you work with grassroots charities and/or non-profit international development organisations - get in touch with them directly and ask them what they want from volunteers. Avoid profit-making companies and websites which advertise 'gap year' travel.
- One great alternative to the typical 'gap year' volunteering websites is the government-funded International Citizenship Service (ICS) scheme which helps to develop personal development while also working with well-respected international development organisations that need volunteers.
- Avoid 'orphanage tourism', a terrible side effect of increasing voluntourism which should be completely avoided at all costs.
- As a general rule, longer volunteering projects are more responsible as short-term volunteering can be damaging to communities and unsustainable. The head of global resourcing at VSO has recommended at least three months as a minimum time period, but longer periods are preferable.
- Fit yourself around the charity or organisation's time frame, rather than fitting them around your own travel plans. Ask them when the best time is for them rather than telling them when you are free.
- Fundraise a significant amount of money for the charity, which will all benefit the charity directly. Don't be afraid to ask to know how the charity/organisation has spent the money. Be transparent about the money you have fundraised and where it's going - do not fundraise your own expenses.
- If working with children, don't take pictures and post them on social media. All children's privacy rights should be respected, just as they would be at home.
- Don't be afraid to ASK questions about the sustainability and impact of the volunteering you will be doing. How does it affect the local community? Are you displacing local people's jobs? Work with the local community, rather than against it.
- Immerse yourself in the culture you are volunteering in - sleep, eat and live like the locals you are working alongside. Most importantly get to know the locals you're working with: act like a volunteer and not a tourist. Ensure you do your research on your destination before you head out and are aware of and respectful of local customs.
- If you are sceptical about any of the above points, then reconsider your volunteering.
Finally, realise that your individual volunteering isn't going to change the world, but that if you volunteer honestly and in the right way you can make a small but real difference to a local community.
If you are considering an international volunteering project, and want some more advice on how to ensure you're doing the right thing visit the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's advice pages where you can find links to good, government approved volunteering schemes and tips to help you keep safe when you're out there.