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The Brutal Truth About Voluntourism – And What to Do About It

  • Andrew Motiwalla
  • 13 July 2015

When you hear the word “voluntourism,” what comes to mind?

If you’re like many people, you may picture privileged white people heading to a developing country and doing a few days of service with the aim of inflating their egos while embellishing their Instagram streams.

Yuck.

This type of surface voluntourism has given the industry a bad rap – and deservedly so.

Volunteer dancing with a girl in the Dominican Republic

Volunteer vacations should be fun and educational. Here, a volunteer in the Dominican Republic takes a break from building a clinic made of plastic bottles to practice some dance steps with a local youth. Photo courtesy of Discover Corps

But not all volunteer travel experiences are like this and it’s up to the industry to start weeding out the bad apples. Only by creating a set of standards that can guide travelers toward organizations doing voluntourism right can the industry transform its reputation.

To start, here are four things to which every voluntourism organization needs to commit:

Only Work with Existing Organizations and Projects

Too often, volunteer travel organizations enter a community and start a project without ever asking anyone in the community what they want. Too often, visitors assume they know what’s “best” for a local community, when in reality, they have no idea what’s needed.

Women with a shaman in Peru

Learning about local culture is an important part of responsible travel. Here, women learn about shamanic traditions in Peru. Photo courtesy of Discover Corps

One example is an organization that builds a school in a village that didn’t have one before. It seems like a great idea, right? When the organization leaves, however, the school remains empty. Why? Because the children are needed to help their parents on their farms. In this case, supplying tools and offering classes on new farming methods would have been a better use of money and time.

Good intentions only help when they’re backed by knowledge and understanding. This is why voluntourism organizations need to work exclusively with grassroots groups already present in the community; they’re the ones that know how and where help is needed.

Support Local Businesses

It may be hard to believe, but some voluntourism organizations hire foreign guides and work with multinational corporations on their trips. This needs to stop. Period.

Volunteers at a Thai cooking class

It doesn’t get better than Thai food. Learn how to recreate this delicious food at home through a local cooking class. Photo courtesy of Discover Corps

We preach about caring for the local communities, so we need to be the models for sustainable travel, contributing as much as possible to the economies in which we work.

This means hiring local guides, staying at family-run guesthouses, eating at local hideaways, and ensuring every activity on our itineraries is ecologically and economically responsible. To do anything else is not only lazy, it’s wrong.

Avoid “Drive-by” Volunteering

We can’t be the only ones who cringe when we see volunteer travel itineraries that spend one night in a location before breezing off to the next. How can anyone get to know a place or its people like that? Though this type of traveling may be fine for some, it is certainly not the type of travel we should be supporting.

A volunteer in a school in Guatemala

A volunteer in Guatemala acts as a classroom helper for curious students. Photo courtesy of Discover Corps

This is the kind of voluntourism that makes people question our industry; it is the kind of altruism people only partake in to polish a resume or share on social media. It only allows volunteers to skim the surface. Though travelers may enjoy visiting a variety of destinations, that’s not what volunteer travel is about.

We need to accept the fact that we can’t cater to everyone – because in doing so with fast-paced itineraries, we’re watering down the purpose behind our trips. The right kind of voluntourism focuses on traveling deep, not wide; it focuses on creating lasting relationships between the community and the volunteers, relationships that have a lasting impact on both sides of the equation.

Ditch the “Save the World” Marketing Campaign

Do I believe voluntourism is an excellent and sustainable form of travel? Yes. Do I believe volunteers can make a difference? Yes. Do I believe our travelers are going to change the world in a week? Heck no.

Volunteer with a Masai in Tanzania

During a visit to the Masai in Tanzania you learn about their unique cultural traditions and nomadic way of life. Photo courtesy of Discover Corps

But many organizations espouse this idea, claiming their volunteers are “saving the world” on one- to two-week jaunts. This is not only ridiculous, it’s incredibly arrogant.

So what should responsible voluntourism organizations claim instead?

That they are offering a responsible and altruistic way to travel. That their volunteers are part of a long chain of people who are slowly, but surely, making a difference. That their trips are sustainable, taking into account the environment, the local culture, and the local economy. That their travelers will return as global citizens, with a better understanding and appreciation of the world around them.

Is It Time for an Industry Standard?

While all of my ideas may sound great to you, how will you or any other traveler know if a voluntourism organization agrees? How will you know if your organization of choice is committed to these standards?

Volunteers at a Thai school

A family volunteers with excited young kids at a Thai elementary school. Photo courtesy of Discover Corps

To me, the answer is clear: a “responsible voluntourism organization” certification. A rigorous certification only granted to companies upholding voluntourism that goes deep into the community to create lasting change.

Because, until that day, we fear voluntourism’s poor reputation will remain. Too many misguided organizations will continue to sully the industry, creating confusion and hesitation among people who simply want to travel sustainably and make a difference.

So this is our call to the voluntourism industry: let’s create a standard for ourselves that reflects our integrity and aspirations. Let’s step up our game.

What other changes would you like to see in the voluntourism industry?

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Andrew Motiwalla

Andrew Motiwalla is the founder of Discover Corps, with all-inclusive volunteer vacations in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It is the only volunteer vacation organization endorsed by the National Peace Corps Association. Andrew believes the best way to discover a country is through its people.
Andrew Motiwalla
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local knowledge, opinion, whl.travel, poverty, voluntourism,

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