Image from the popular Onion article, 6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture
Every few months, I see an article or two on my newsfeed about how voluntourism -- volunteer travel -- is bad, because non-experts who only have a week or two to volunteer aren't actually helpful. And, of course, each of these articles suggests that instead of spending thousands of dollars on volunteer travel opportunities... you should just donate thousands of dollars to a nonprofit.
I sincerely wish people would stop publishing these articles.
First of all, anyone with a basic understanding of behavioral economics knows that that's not how money decisions are made. Telling people to "just donate you money" is useless. It's not like they have a bucket of charity money that they are choosing to spend on voluntourism instead of charitable donations.
Instead, it's like this: people have an incredible drive to travel. It's something we work hard to be able to do and are willing to spend a lot of money on. It's something that psychology research proves makes us happy. And. Some people have good hearts and want to travel in a way that helps the community or country they are visiting.
Is it selfish to volunteer abroad because you love travel? I don't think so, no. I think it is very compassionate and admirable. It says something about you and your life and priorities.
After all, when I travel, I want to spend all of my money on myself. I want to rent surfboards and drive 4x4s and hire pangas and go scuba diving. So choosing to go to Uganda and spend your money helping someone other than yourself... that's pretty spectacular, and I will not criticize you for it.
Nor am I going to presume to tell you how to spend your money.
Second, anyone with a basic understanding of psychology knows that, yes, cooperation and altruism are big parts of human nature. But. Shoveling out money isn't nearly as meaningful to us as getting involved and doing some of the work ourselves.
I mean, if you're going to say, "Get rid of voluntourism because it's more efficient to just give money," you may as well add, "Let's also get rid of galas, charity dances, 5k/10k fundraisers, pancake breakfasts and golf tournaments, because it's more efficient to just give the money."
People want to feel involved. They want to connect. When you tell them they're nothing but a checkbook, you're a) being a dick, and b) being really disengaging.
If we're going to make a sizable donation, we want to feel like we are emotionally getting something out of it. Thank you letters and photographs are nice... but not nearly as meaningful as the feeling of going door-to-door and asking our neighbors to sponsor us in the dance-a-thon or traveling to Haiti and laying some bricks.
Third, anyone wth a basic understanding of travel knows that many of us crave an "authentic" travel experience. Some types of travelers just want to visit a beach resort and drink pina coladas at a resort. But more often, you see travelers looking to connect with locals. Eat local food. Have a local experience.
As I wrote in Travel Hack: Do What You Do At Home While You Travel, and again in Advantages of Traveling While Female, it is absolutely possible to have such an experience on your own. I did last night! After meeting three Costa Rican men on the Samara beach, we decided to meet up later to play guitars around a fogata.
But obviously, this required a lot of work on my end -- as well as a major leap of faith.
I had to book airfare and do research about where to visit and stay while I'm in Costa Rica. I had to rent a car. I had to figure out how much every individual piece of my trip (meals, lodging, transportation, gear rental, etc.) would cost.
And then I had to strike up a conversation with three men I didn't know -- something a lot of people struggle with. Depending on where you travel, it can be tricky to connect with locals on a personal level. I've found that the more touristy a place is, the more likely it is that people will want to sell you something rather than get to know you.
Finally, I had to trust that, in spite of the various articles I have read online about theft and crime -- not to mention the language barrier between us that made it harder to interpret their tones and intentions -- this situation was what I thought it was. That these were trustworthy guys.
I tend to be pretty trusting -- I'm aware of the statistics (sadly, I'm much more likely to be raped or murdered by a friend or significant other than a stranger); I'm physically big and strong; and I am not afraid to assert my boundaries. (Number one rule of solo travel: don't be afraid to "be rude".)
But I'm also fully aware that not all people are like me. I'm aware that planning a whole trip yourself can be stressful and frustrating.
Which is why voluntourism is a great option for people who want to truly engage with locals, but don't have the bandwidth or comfort to do it on their own.
You don't have to figure out how much everything will cost -- you just write your check and book your flight, and everything is taken care of. Everyone you talk to is going to be trustworthy -- they wouldn't work for the volunteer organization if they weren't. And you don't have to worry about language barriers being an issue -- there will be English speakers on the trip with you.
Voluntourism is a way to engage with a community in a meaningful way. It's a way to give back while traveling. It's a way to forget about all the details. It's a way to feel safe. And, sure, it might not be the most efficient way for the money to be spent. But it's better to be less efficient with more money... than to have no money with which to be efficient.
And! It's a way to get access to places you couldn't otherwise -- from turtle nesting beaches to elephant care facilities to, sure, schools and orphanages.
The New York Times recently published The Voluntourist's Dilemma, which suggested that ophthalmologists should voluntour, because they are experts. But people like you and me have nothing to contribute. Which I found pretty shortsighted.
Because, again. Sure, most Americans probably don't know much about building homes. But their program fees pay for the building materials. Without them, there would be no school to more efficiently build.
Also, knowing English opens a lot of doors for people in other countries. Access to English speakers is a huge investment in their future.
The article also complained about long-term planning. I agree that it is important to have a long-term plan for the school you are building. It is important to recruit and train high quality teachers. But that is an issue the nonprofit should address. The volunteers who are funding the nonprofit through their travel. If you have an issue with long-term planning, take it up with the voluntourism companies -- not the kind-hearted volunteers.
(Not to mention: I would respect you a lot more as a person if you wrote compelling op-eds, guides and blog posts that either helped volunteers pick the best voluntourism company or held companies accountable for better results... than if you simply take cheap shots at volunteers and make condescending remarks about how useless they are.)
Finally, the article suggested that voluntourism can be harmful. It used the example of African orphanages that "may intentionally subject children to poor conditions in order to entice unsuspecting volunteers to donate more money." Again... how is this the volunteers' fault? If you have an issue with this, then expose the orphanages who are guilty of such practices -- and encourage companies to stop doing business with them.
Corruption and misuse of chartiable contributions are hardly unique to volunteer travel. The Red Cross and The Clinton Foundation are just as guilty.
The article also hypothesized that volunteers cause harm by constantly drifting into and out of childrens' lives, causing attachment issues. It's an interesting theory. I would be interested to see if it is actually supported by research.
That said, I have little experience with volunteer travel. I did take a group of American teenagers to Poland one summer, where they did community service in a local park (I didn't help them, though). My students had a wonderful time in Torun, living with host families, spending time in nature and getting to know each other. Their only complaint was that they didn't feel like painting fences in a park was impactful enough. But I think we all agreed that any time you spend in another culture is going to open your eyes and expand your world view, and I have a hard time seeing this as a bad thing.
I would like to see a study on charitable giving after completing a volunteer project abroad. Maybe personally connecting with someone from another world and personally witnessing the conditions and struggles they live with has a lasting effect on your values, empathy and spending. Or perhaps a study on how much money volunteers put into local markets when they go out to eat and buy souvenirs. A study on whether volunteers help preserve and sponsor visual and performing arts that otherwise would not be a profitable, sustainable business for local artists.
So, perhaps instead of making fun of people who want to volunteer, tell them how to do it better. Publish a list of 10 Questions to Ask a Voluntourism Company Before Signing the Check. Publish a list of 10 Voluntourism Organizations That Benefit Their Communities Most (And Ten That Absolutely Don't). Or 5 Realistic Expectations for Your Voluntour Experience.
I would do it myself, if I were an expert on this. But! If you have something you want to contribute, I am happy to publish it on The Happy Talent. Just send me a message or leave a comment!
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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