Voluntourism: Who Truly Benefits?

“Today was so great, but I’m exhausted!” I said to my group, as we discussed our day’s work in the remote Muong Village of Vietnam. We had spent the past four days helping to construct a road so that during the monsoon season the locals could leave their homes and travel safely. We congratulated ourselves on a job well done and soaked in the euphoric feeling of doing a “good deed” for those who desperately needed our help.

We departed the next morning and left the rest of the road to the three other programs that would come later on in the summer who were just as eager to help the disadvantaged, learn about a new culture and make a difference. Of course, these are noble sentiments, and there is no harm in lending a helping hand or devoting time to an important project.

But for whom was I really doing this service? Did the local community truly need a group of unqualified teenagers to do six days worth of labor for them?

Was the entire basis of volunteering abroad really just self-serving?

This past summer, I spent the month of June backpacking through Southeast Asia with a group of American high school students. The trip was advertised as “the classic backpacking trip through unique and off-the-beaten-path locations through Southeast Asia,” with a focus on community service and cultural education.

Among trips to temples and museums, the eighteen of us taught English in Laos, delivered water in Myanmar, built a road in Vietnam, and worked on a school in Thailand. Every place was beautiful, and every project was enriching. Each day, I gave my best effort to be positive and impactful – doing my part to help build this road or to help deliver drinking water.

It was on my return home that I began to wonder how impactful my presence truly was.

I had chosen this trip because of the community service component. My family and I have always believed that when traveling, you should always give back to the community and leave the place better than how you found it. And so this trip seemed perfect: I was able to explore countries I had never visited before while also giving back through these service projects.

But did these projects benefit my host community? Well, for the most part, they did not.

In the past few years, volunteering abroad has become a 2 billion USD industry with more than 1.6 million people traveling to volunteer. This type of travel has become so popular that a new term was coined: voluntourism.

Voluntourists go to a place for a week or two to work on a “project,” ranging anywhere from orphan caretakers and English teachers to school builders and medical assistants. Regardless of the job, voluntourism requires little to no experience in the field of work, and because of the short-term stays and lack of qualifications, these good-intentioned leave their host country in worse shape than when they arrived.

As reporter Pippa Biddle puts it, “Somewhere between Googling’ volunteer trips’ and booking, the people taking part are convinced that they really do have the skills necessary to be successful at what they are signing up for.”

In most cases, volunteers don’t realize their impact on the visited community.

Of course, these people never mean to cause anyone harm, but the increased market of voluntourism has led to the well being of the host community to be a second-hand concern to profitability and the desires of the tourist.

With so many people willing to pay to fly abroad and build schools and fill positions all in the name of “volunteering,” the community not only loses out on making genuine improvements on infrastructure, it also loses out on the opportunity to boost the local economy. Unqualified foreigners take jobs from qualified locals and the outcome is both a poorly built school and a higher unemployment rate.

Why pay wages to locals when foreigners are willing to work for free?

In the end, a school may get built, but when the volunteers go home satisfied, where does the community stand? Having a constructed school does not produce funds with which to pay teachers or improve the education system.

So in comes the next problem. With no funds available to effectively enhance the school system, foreigners are asked to come back and help teach, even if they have no teaching qualifications. Soon foreigners begin to feel their presence is necessary to local education and community survival.

While most people who volunteer go with good intentions, they don’t recognize how they are simultaneously perpetuating the white savior complex. These communities don’t need foreigners to come in for a few weeks to build a school or teach English to children – they need stability and support from qualified individuals.

In the short term, yes, I helped to build a school and a road in places that needed both of these amenities, and for a short while, each of those communities was glad that people were visiting their villages and helping out. However, I now realize my presence there was less about helping those communities and more about helping myself.

It is undeniable that it feels so much more gratifying and substantive to be hands-on and to physically help with the building of a school rather than to send money in the mail or support a charity. But if our real intention is to assist in the best and most efficient way possible, then we need to be going about this differently.

If I had donated even half of the $3000 that I spent on just traveling to these areas on each of these projects, they could have hired local workers and used locally sourced materials, and the village, the workers, and the community as a whole could have improved and grown for the long term.

Now I don’t mean to say that all volunteering is terrible, but I do ask that the next time we want to “make a difference” in community foreign to our own that we look more closely and find ways that most positively impact them.

If we recognize that our main desire with abroad volunteer work is to support those in need, then we must also accept that our presence as unskilled volunteers is altogether detrimental to the local areas and only serves to benefit ourselves.

So next time you find yourself tempted to traverse to the other end of the globe to “save” the poor sickly orphans – think twice and please, leave it to the professionals.

Devon Park is a rising sophomore at Columbia University in New York City. She is a chemistry and human rights double major. Devon enjoys traveling and hopes to create a community where traveling is both sustainable and ethical.

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