Travelling Abroad for Voluntary Work in the World's Poorest Places? Then You Are Part of the Problem, Not the Solution

07/06/2016 11:01 | Updated 07 June 2016

Volunteer tourism or "Voluntourism" is when companies send volunteers abroad for profit. This involves volunteer work in developing nations, and willing participants with a wad of spare cash and time can travel the world in the belief they are gaining a sense of community alongside fellow volunteers and the native population.

A survey from two years ago saw 35% of adults say they would like to try a holiday involving a voluntourism component, in addition to the 6% who had already done so. It is worth roughly £1.3 billion a year in the UK economy such is the fierce competition with these not for profit businesses, the profits get paid to people in the form of wages rather than dividends. It may on the surface appear to be a more pleasant form of commercialisation, maintaining the illusion of nice and fluffy charity work but it is a business earning income none the less.

The rise of voluntourism has seen host nations end up with a number of rather serious and worrying problems. In developing African nations the local population are now less likely to purchase health insurance since they know every few months there will be a ready and willing supply of foreign volunteers to bring medication--leaving the community susceptible to disease during interims.

A growing number of people have also become involved in "orphan" projects in Africa and South East Asia, where children are cared for and receive an education by the voluntourism organisation. Some children, because their parents cannot afford send them to school, move into orphanages where tourists come to provide them with food and education.

Wealthy tourists prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs (hence why they cannot afford to send their children to school) and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma levels by disappearing back home.

On the African continent, there has been a surge in unregistered orphanages. UNICEF officials said children's welfare is secondary to profits and it is thought less than one-third of income goes on child care and that as many as 65% of orphans may not be orphans at all. There are also woeful checks on the background of the people seeing these children, which may result in some rather unsavoury characters being given plenty of access to young and vulnerable children.

It is said "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

If it is good intentions that drive these volunteers, then surely logic would dictate that the many thousands spent on their adventure to deepest darkest Africa or wherever it may be, would be better spent investing in skills for the community rather than having a community reliant on constant outside help. Why not provide the community with the resources and knowledge to care for their own and invest in infrastructure? Well that simply does not generate enough profit. Sending money does not make someone feel or look like the wonderful person they wish to portray themselves as without some lovely photographs of themselves in the latest fashionable crisis zone.

If you know someone who has been on one of these trips they won't be hard to spot. Volunteers spend a great deal of time on social media , where these "volunteers" post "selfies" with the poor indigenous people and splash hashtags along with a carefully selected filter just to show off their glamorous lives. It all seems to devalue the original purpose of volunteering abroad and makes one wonder if these individuals' motives were charitable at all. Working in an underdeveloped region is supposed to result in meaningful change and an expansion of one's worldview, not a new profile picture that can get you a few extra likes.

These examples reveal the real danger and absolute selfishness of voluntourism: It creates a dependency between host communities and Western societies rather than the infrastructure needed for sustainable self-reliance.

Once again, clumsy attempts from do-gooders end up harming communities they want to help. We have seen it with foreign aid, costly for the taxpayer and ineffective. The result is we end up propping up dictators, dumping cheap food and clothes, devastating industries and encouraging a dependency culture. And now we see it with "voluntourism."

Next time you or someone you know suggests taking one of these trips remember that it is really about the fulfilment of the volunteers themselves, the companies who make a profit and not the host nations. Going on a trip like this is one of the most selfish and damaging things you can do.