The Word "Voluntourism" And Its Nasty Connotations

December 31, 1969

In 2004, as a freshman in college, I was hired as a work-study student with Peace Corps Headquarters. At 19 years old, I knew that I wanted to work with them, if not volunteer with them later—and was completely ignorant of this entire other sector of volunteer abroad programs.

Eight years later, I’ve built my career around volunteering abroad, having worked almost every day of my life since then to learn everything I can about international volunteering, and to share with you what I’ve found.

Ayako Ezaki of The International Ecotourism Society wrote to me and a couple others last Wednesday, asking if we might be able to respond to recent sobering reports about the voluntourism industry, and specifically, orphanage voluntourism.

So let’s get started!

VoluntourismGandoca, Costa Rica

Within weeks of being hired at Peace Corps, I became aware of the term voluntourism, a word that made me cringe, imagining untrained, Western travelers gawking at developing communities, planting trees for an hour, and then patting themselves on the back as they sat back in an air conditioned hotel room far away from the uncomfortable realities of an impoverished country. My coworkers didn’t have a more favorable opinion either.

I have to tell you, that after spending almost every day of the past seven years immersed in volunteer abroad research, best practices, volunteer support, and even serving overseas myself—this is still the image that word provokes in my mind.

At Volunteer Global, our team tends to use the words “volunteer abroad” or “volunteer travel,” partly because of the poison the word “voluntourism” seems to carry. It’s a word championed by some researchers, journalists, and volunteer sending and hosting organizations, but also said with a sneer by other researchers, writers, and volunteer groups.

Media Coverage

Each year, like clockwork, members of the media grab on to the word “voluntourism,” and they don’t let go until it’s good and mangled. Questions like, “Does voluntourism do more harm than good?” and, “Are volunteers selfish or selfless?” or, “Who really benefits from voluntourism?” crop up in blogs, magazines, and newspapers.

And these are serious issues that need to be addressed. But time and again, we see the questions posed with the intent to stir up conversation, not come to a resolution. And how can we? The issues aren’t black and white. We can’t call every volunteer either selfish or selfless; we can’t say all of the work volunteers do abroad is always good or always bad; and we can’t say that on every project, volunteers always benefit or the community always benefits.

This spring, the subject reached Al Jazeera, which hosted this eye-opening segment into the orphanage voluntourism industry, as well as these two articles. I watched the video, frantically scrawling notes on my white board, mumbling, “Thank you!” and “Freakin’ finally!” as the hosts and guests noted…well, many of the points that volunteer abroad researchers like ourselves have been shouting from the mountaintops for years.

So let's go over some questions that were raised, and that are often raised, in hard-hitting stories about volunteering abroad.

Does volunteering abroad cause more harm than good?

This is one of the most popular questions posed to the industry—from college newspapers to bloggers to international news agencies. There’s no clear-cut answer; it depends on the volunteer and the organization he works with, regardless of whether he’s with a host group or with a placement group.

Volunteering in DC

Earlier this May, I had the opportunity to visit the PAW Cat Sanctuary in Belize, an organization that depends on international volunteers for its survival.

PAW was founded to spay and neuter, as well as to care for cats on Caye Caulker, Belize—a community that culturally perceives these animals as pests. Madi Collins was raised in Caye Caulker, and founded the program over 10 years ago to get cats off of the streets and into a safe shelter.

Because volunteerism isn’t part of the culture in Belize, and because in her words, “Even if we pay [locals], they won’t do it. They don’t see the point,” she depends on volunteers to provide daily care both for the cats and the cattery in which they live, as well as to provide professional veterinary assistance in spaying, neutering, and giving vaccinations and much-needed checkups for the animals.

Every cent that Madi’s volunteers pay for their housing (the only fee incurred with the program) is used directly to provide food, shelter, and veterinary care for the sanctuary’s cats. She’s also had amazing volunteers, one of whom I had the pleasure of meeting, that love the organization’s mission, love the work they do, and that contribute their time, expertise, and even donations (such as cat food and stainless steel bowls) to help further the project’s goals.

Asking whether volunteering does more harm than good is an interesting question, but not one that can be answered in any simple capacity. Madi herself has had volunteers that hurt the program—such as one that drunkenly returned to the guest house one night, and who proceeded to let all of the animals out of the cattery. And using the orphanage voluntourism example from the Al Jazeera report, there absolutely are awful places operating worldwide to meet the demand that volunteers have to travel, but not meet any demand for effective childcare and development—to learn a bit more about this issue, read my article from last year about orphanage volunteering.

Are volunteers selfish or selfless?

Gonna just put my opinion out here: This is a stupid question. I know I said it was a good one a few minutes ago, but it’s not. The question should be, “Does a volunteer’s work benefit the community?”

Who cares whether someone takes a volunteer trip because he wants to see the world, and volunteering is an inexpensive (most of the time) way to do it? Or because he wants to get some experience for his resume? Or because he honestly loves the work a particular group does and wants to focus completely on that?Petting an ocelot in Nicaragua

Granted, a volunteer that signs up for a project expecting to literally change the world, and then that actively refuses to budge from this viewpoint can at best have an interesting experience, and at worst do little to actually help the project, have a terrible experience, leave his host community with an awful view of volunteers (though hopefully just him, as we'll assume a volunteer organization receives more than one volunteer for the duration of its project) and post all about it online.

But how many volunteers actually have that experience? Even on weeklong trips, I’ve encountered volunteers that have had their worldview shaken and had their priorities shifted, not to mention those that stay on longer—sometimes even for years.

Of course there are ones that hurt more than they help. Take Madi’s example above, or consider the entitled, bull-headed volunteer that doesn’t use his experience abroad as an opportunity to grow the heck up. The fortunate thing is though, that this isn’t the norm. The "privileged white volunteer" stereotype exists, absolutely!

But we seem to never look beyond it and see how that person changes through the duration of his project, or even for years afterward. We don't look at the actual work he's doing, such as helping with an ongoing agriculture program, or assisting with one part of constructing a community center, and instead scoff at the "I'm better than you, richer than you, and smarter than you" attitude that we assume all international volunteers have.

This isn’t to put volunteer organizations on a pedestal either; I’ve had both terrible and amazing experiences in volunteering overseas, as well as in volunteering within my own community. Sometimes it has been due to my own preconceptions or misunderstandings (and I've for sure seen volunteers embarrass the project and their fellow volunteers), and at other times, it’s because the group I worked with was poorly operated, misguided in their work, or disillusioned with their lack of progress. Some of my friends have volunteered abroad, and come back disappointed and confused with the lack of structure, support, or training, and it wasn't his fault; it was the organization's failing.

But asking whether international volunteers are all selfless or selfish? Now that’s just dumb.

Who really benefits from voluntourism?

This builds on the points made in that last two sections—it depends on the volunteer and the group he works with—as well as the engagement of the host community.

If a volunteer benefits from his trip, then that’s wonderful! He might be inspired to come back for another stint, to donate to the community project, to get involved in his own community, and encourage others to volunteer abroad. He can gain valuable experience not only for his school and career, but also for his personal worldview.

Where it gets sticky is if only one or the other benefits from the project. Yes, I am saying that volunteers should indeed benefit from their experience. It’s disturbing to hear people talk about whether a host community should gain from the project alone; it’s dehumanizing to the volunteers that work alongside them.

Volunteers in Peru

Saying whether a community should gain as much as or more than the volunteer working on the project is entirely subjective. Heck, I quit my job (at a volunteer abroad agency, no less!) and am tirelessly working to build Volunteer Global into a sustainable enterprise entirely because of a single service trip—one that I know helped myself and the community in which I was placed. I still think I gained more than my host country counterparts did from that experience, but I also absolutely did not work to the detriment of my host community.

So considering those points, we should ask instead, “How does the community benefit from voluntourism?”

Let's use Volunteer Honduras as an example. I know that their short-term volunteers are doing some excellent work, even if they only stay onsite for one week. My project, to give you an idea, focused on painting a boys’ dorm for a children’s home in one of the most impoverished, violent countries in the world.

Now, when you think “painting project,” you imagine it’s entirely aesthetic, right? Not so in this case. The boys’ dorm was recently built but hadn’t been occupied by the time I arrived to the project, because the ceiling tiles used in the house weren’t sealed—over time, these tiles break down, releasing potentially harmful dust into the air. In this dorm, it could become dangerous quickly, with a dozen young children sleeping in bunk beds just feet away from the ceiling.

We worked alongside the project’s founder, Bobby Durette, as well as the operators of the children’s home we volunteered in partnership with, to cover these tiles in paint, effectively sealing the dust and making the house safe for the boys to occupy.

And an added benefit? The money we paid for this weeklong trip directly benefited the children’s home—it allowed Melody and Jacob (the house parents) to fix a flat tire on their home’s van, to purchase paint and supplies for the volunteers, and to feed and provide medical care for the home’s children.

Asking which of us benefited more shouldn’t matter. I gained a wonderful experience that inspired me to get out of a rut and do something different with my life, and Hogar Miguel Miqueas was able to complete construction of a boys’ dorm—something they didn’t have time to do without volunteers and could not pay those in their community to finish—and to provide tangible support for the children they served.

This is just one example of a solid volunteer program; there are indeed others that, while well intentioned (or sometimes not; sometimes there are just organizations set up to make some extra cash from well-meaning travelers), don't engage their community effectively, don't engage local solutions to local problems, and don't monitor and evaluate their programs either due to ignorance, lack of care, or decreased manpower and budget. They're not sustainable, and they give well meaning, well operated programs like Volunteer Honduras or the PAW Cat Sanctuary a tarnished name, simply because they too accept international volunteers to further their mission.

Orphanage voluntourism

This brings me to the idea that sparked this article in the first place: what about orphanage voluntourism?

When Bobby asked if I might be interested in volunteering in Honduras last summer, I paused for a moment, knowing that part of the work was with a children’s home, and that I have a strong personal and professional opposition to volunteering short-term with such a vulnerable population.

Volunteers in Peru

I agreed to sign up, however, because Volunteer Honduras doesn’t place volunteers in the home to work directly with children. Their volunteers instead supplement the smaller projects that the home’s full-time, professionally trained staff don’t have time or funding to focus on.

The other night, as I watched the Al Jazeera coverage of orphanage voluntourism in Cambodia, I couldn’t contain my excitement—I stopped the video to welcome my fiancé home from work, and then talked his ear off for 20 minutes about excited I was to see the awful effects of orphanage tourism dredged up by someone outside of the voluntourism industry itself.

I’ve already reached nearly 2,000 words, so I’ll just link my original article on orphanage volunteering, which covers what to look out for, why I don’t recommend you go in the first place, and if you still really want to do it, how to get started in finding a reputable program. I promise it’s a much shorter read than this piece.

Here’s one thought, though, that I want to leave you with on orphanage tourism: While a volunteer might think, “Ah, I’m leaving a bright spot in this child’s otherwise miserable life,” the children in turn see a constant stream of visitors singing the ABCs, giving hugs, and leaving behind crayons and coloring books. It’s not helping, and in fact, it’s hurting. It’s not the education they need, they’re not receiving long-term care from qualified individuals, and they’re not being provided the resources to grow out of their current existence.

And if you haven’t seen it yet, please watch this 36-minute video, which brings up incredibly important points that must be addressed in orphanage tourism—and even volunteer travel in general.

If you volunteer abroad, your experience is your experience, and what you make of it. It’s your responsibility to find the program that works for you and that’s doing some great work in their community; educate yourself about the issues, about the organizations—large and small—working to address those issues, and how to get involved with the ones that are in fact doing more good than harm. Whether you volunteer for personal growth or for any other reason under the sun, going about it in a smart, well informed way will make all the difference—for yourself, for your host group, and for your host community.

Images courtesy of the author and friends: Beach image from a volunteer project in Costa Rica; garden image from a volunteer project in Washington, DC; zoo image from a project in Nicaragua; final two images of volunteers with children from a project in Peru.