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Doing good gone bad: assessing the problems with voluntourism

Bolner (12) argues against voluntourism

Alexis Bolner

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Service projects abroad are not always well-intentioned. They are sold to teenagers on the glossy covers of student travel magazines, claiming that voluntourism will be an incredible way to aid “developing countries.” However, voluntourism is harmful to the people and communities involved.

Voluntourism can take many forms, but commonly vacationers will volunteer to build schools and homes, teach english, or “help-out” in an orphanage. On the surface, these projects are attractive because people think that they will look good on a college application and expand their global awareness. However, a deeper look at the impact of voluntourists reveals an unfortunate reality.

This summer I learned about orphanage voluntourist trips. I was traveling to Cambodia with a program focused on cross-cultural experiential education. One of the ways in which I learned about the damaging side of volontourism was through speaking to locally based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs.)

While at a particular NGO, I learned that orphanage volunteers usually work for only a few days or weeks at a time. They build relationships with the kids, which are abruptly cut off when the volunteer leaves. Additionally, volunteers feel sympathy when they see the children’s tattered clothing and dirty floors that line the orphanage and thus donate money to the institution. However, voluntourists do not realize that the orphanage has been designed to trigger feelings of sympathy. Children are malnourished and denied proper clothing for the sake of increasing donations and currying the favor of the voluntourists. Orphanage employees may even encourage local families to give up their children. They advertise themselves to impoverished families who feel stressed and overwhelmed with the responsibility of raising a child. For the orphanage, more orphans attract even more donors. However, in the midst of these corrupt business practices, the orphans suffer.

According to Save The Children, the results of orphanage institutionalization are neglect and abandonment issues. This hindrance to child development predisposes orphans to developing mental illnesses and engaging with criminal activity and prostitution in the future. However, orphanage tourism and voluntourism remain popular vacation activities for high school students.

Celebrities and the media have played a role in encouraging service abroad by making these types of trips part of a “trend.” For example, in 2011, Kim Kardashian traveled to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that occurred there. While she claimed to have traveled with the intention of helping a women’s health and safety organization, her trip attracted a lot of media coverage, which detracted from the task at hand. High profile celebrities attract attention and encourage people to follow in their footsteps.

When it comes down to it, the basic principles of voluntourism are problematic. The assumption that people have an innate ability to improve “developing” communities is incorrect. Any person who tries to build a school without training is likely to do it inefficiently and incorrectly because experience is necessary. The same is true of teaching English– qualified and dedicated teachers are needed in order to successfully teach.

It is crucial to understand the impact of a particular service project in addition to its community-wide repercussions before getting involved. I suggest that instead of volunteering at an orphanage or jumping into a construction project, get involved with a local NGO. They are well-established and thoroughly understand the people and communities with which they work. Additionally, it is important to be trained in your job in order to make a meaningful contribution to your project. Otherwise locals will be burdened with picking up the pieces of your incomplete work. Just make sure you are comfortable with your impact before you choose to make it.

As I found in Cambodia this summer, opting out of voluntourism and instead learning and immersing yourself in the local culture can still create an incredibly meaningful and eye-opening experience. Surya Gowda

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Doing good gone bad: assessing the problems with voluntourism