Essay – Noa


It sounds amazing, an experience for a life time, easy going on your CV, visiting third world countries and also helping little children. Well, to be honest, this is what it sounds from the experience of volunteers but on the contrary to the locals, this is far from reality. Does voluntourism actually have an effect to volunteers as well as to the locals?

A trend seems to have started in the recent years, where people in organizations that commonly claim to be helping developing countries. With enthusiasm of ‘making a difference’ more and more people choose voluntourism, a combination of tourism and volunteer projects which almost always involves a group of idealistic and privileged travellers who have way different statuses than those they serve. These voluntourists often enter these organizations with little or no understanding, knowledge of the locals’ way of life what causes divided opinions regarding the contribution of voluntourism on local community. The primary issue is whether voluntourism proved help to the local communities because to me voluntourism does more harm than good.

While some researchers using surveys find local people satisfied with volunteer tourists, other research investigating quality, tasks, motivation and local need of voluntourism have found it doing more harm than good. Such a harmful trend has made the UK director of VSO, one of the baggiest and earliest international development charity warn “Young people want to make difference through volunteering, but they would better off travelling… rather than wasting time on projects that have no impact…” (Ward, 2007)

And that is exactly what has been the problem, most tourists are hardly qualified as helpful volunteers. According to a research by Richard Forsythe only 36% of all studied volunteer applicants in various fields went through application process more complicated than filling application forms, and “no individuals remarked upon the selection process as a particularly challenging experience, and indeed several of the organizations interviewed admitted to accepting ‘almost all volunteers’ having ‘very few requirements, and taking ‘anyone who is interested.” (Forsythe, 2011)  It will not only cause voluntourism to be far from effective but also really bad.

An entire industry has sprouted out of voluntourism as it increases in popularity, possibly equal to the increase in global inequality. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so too it seems does the need for those of the global north to assuage the guilt of their privilege (paradoxically, guilt only seems to deepen as many realize the illusory effect of their impact), or to simply look good. The developing world has become a playground for the redemption of privileged souls looking to atone for global injustices by escaping the vacuity of modernity and globalization.

But does this address the root institutional and structural causes of the problem? I do not mean to deny, across the board, the importance of the work voluntourists do. Volunteers in developing countries fund and deliver great programmes that would not happen otherwise, but the sustainability and the effectiveness of the approach is what I question. Time and energy would be better spent building real solidarity between disparate societies based on mutual respect and understanding. Instead of focusing on surface symptoms of poverty, volunteers and the organizations that recruit them should focus on the causes that often stem from an unjust global economic order. Why not advocate and campaign for IMF and World Bank reforms? How about having volunteers advocate for their home country to change aggressive foreign and agricultural policies (such as subsidy programmes)? This might seem unrealistic but the idea is to get volunteers to understand their own (direct or indirect) role in global poverty. The idea is to get volunteers truly invested in ending poverty, and not simply to feel better about themselves.



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