Every summer, social media fills with pictures of friends going abroad to volunteer. Students take their chance to go to new places before university starts again, and many enjoy a gap year either before or after university to gain new experiences before having to face studying or a new job.
There are countless companies set up to help people manage this: from building houses and schools in Thailand, to volunteering with children in South Africa, and hundreds of other projects around the world. Through all of these projects, there is the question, how much is this actually helping?
Voluntourism has grown hugely as a trend and many across the world have been claiming that most provide no real benefits to local communities, and some actively damaging them. If voluntourism isn’t working, then the system needs to change, and perhaps there is a better option available.
One of the main criticisms of voluntourism is that the volunteers coming into a community perform jobs which could be given to locals, who would get paid for them. Companies are bringing paying volunteers into a region and taking jobs away from the community who see little of the benefits of having volunteers and even less of the money that the volunteers are paying.
Those performing the work often have little skill, and any skills which they do bring to the situation generally aren’t shared with the local community. Along with this, the huge amounts of money paid to companies by volunteers gives an incentive to keep areas underdeveloped as they need work for the volunteers to do. With no real coordination with the local authorities or communities and the highly seasonal nature of work, voluntourism will often bring no benefit to the regions involved and can actively harm the local economy.
Alongside harm to the community, there is a colonial aspect to voluntourism. The idea of developing countries needing Western help and guidance is building a new form of colonialism: companies are telling Western volunteers that they are essential in helping the local communities and in saving them from their poverty.
This whole image of ‘helping’ is damaging as it perpetuates the perception of the developing world as deeply deprived and unable to fix itself. This can’t be the foundation of any lasting change. The companies involved in most of these projects aren’t interested in providing any form of skill-sharing with locals, or in promoting cultural understanding in order to better work with the communities and authorities.
The image of the developing countries needing Western help is continuing the constant need for more volunteers and contributing to the failure to provide local communities with the skills and resources necessary for them to develop their own region.
Voluntourism is not sustainable for the future, but this is not to say that people should stop volunteering. The ideal would be volunteers becoming part of a cultural exchange within the community, in order to facilitate the sharing of skills and building of local tourism.
A major problem is outside companies making the profits from volunteering. By creating sustainable tourism links with the community itself, the local economy can further grow and can be maintained leading into the future.
The most significant aspect of improving volunteering is to remove the image of charitable white volunteers saving the poor. Positive change needs to be built on equal standing, and on projects bringing mutual gain for both volunteer and community. Volunteering is a valuable contribution but it has to be done well.
Image: VSPYCC via Flickr