Volunteerism or voluntourism?

Image credit: Antonix Wayfarer

Every summer hundreds of students leaving sixth form take up ‘gap yah' projects in foreign countries, hoping to take a year out from education to volunteer and provide aid to people around the world. This so called ‘voluntourism' industry is a very profitable one – with profits around US$173 billion a year. It is my belief that this industry tricks hopeful optimistic young people into wasting their money for very little benefit (or even harm!) done to the causes they seek to aid.

From a purely numerical standpoint, these projects appear harmful. In 2014, £10.6 billion was given to charity in the UK – only a small percentage of which was to international aid charities such as those actually helping in developing countries that so called voluntourism projects claim to support. This is barely a drop in the ocean compared to the massive profits made by voluntourism. The average cost to go away on one of these gap years for a few weeks is around about £3000-4000, which isn't used to provide aid in the foreign countries – it instead pays for a holiday, with accommodation and food provided. Surely a better use of this money would be to give it to actually charitable organisations who could use it tactically to fund specific projects, and pay professionals to go over and support the locals in these countries?

On the cultural side, they do not do much better. Typically unskilled teenagers go to far flung countries, generally with little knowledge of the culture they are entering, in order to do jobs which would likely be better done by those who actually live there – which is arrogant, patronising, and offensive to those living there. The issues faced by these poorer areas are generally ones which either require professional support (for example engineers and teachers), or which could be done far better by the locals. In doing this, young people are taking local jobs from the regions, and due to their incompetence – would they be allowed to do the same work in their own country? - will likely slow the projects down and act as a hinderance.

Further issues arise when these voluntourists leave the countries in which they are working. A school is completely useless if there are no teachers, so without longer term support many of the projects will end up being almost entirely useless. In the same way, they can produce negative impacts – volunteers helping in orphanages are likely to aim to form strong bonds with the children they look after, however when they inevitably leave at the end of their placement these bonds will be broken. Losing a carer every five weeks is hardly likely to be good for the development of these children, and yet it is a natural progression of these programs. A better idea would surely be to support charities such as Save the Children which can provide long term support to these orphanages.

Voluntourism can also have more direct negative impacts. There has been evidence of child trafficking occurring to fill orphanages in order to attract voluntourists to different areas to make a profit – this makes the tourists themselves complicit in the perpetual institutionalisation of children, which may subject the children they aim to help to abuse.

In conclusion, voluntourism is rarely a good thing. It has very few benefits when compared to donating that money to charities and organisations who will be able to provide long term support to areas, and should be viewed more as something used to selfishly benefit the tourists themselves (in terms of ‘finding themselves' and CV potential) at the expense of the people living in the areas they aim to support. For anybody looking at going on one of these projects, I would strongly recommend instead donating the money to a charity such as Save the Children or Oxfam who will better be able to deal with the issues being faced.

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