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Voluntourism vs international volunteering?

International volunteering and voluntourism are oftentimes used interchangeably. Regardless, a significant distinction is present between those two terms and using them as synonyms is not entirely correct.

Before we go further with explaining why we think it’s a bad idea to mix the terms up let’s take a look at their definitions. We are taking the definitions from the Cambridge Dictionary and the Uncornered Market website.

 

Defining “volunteering”

Volunteering involves actions ‘performed with free will, for the benefit of the community, and not primarily for financial gain’ (Leigh et al., 2011). In essence, we give our time and skills to benefit others.

 

Defining “voluntourism”

A type of holiday in which you work as a volunteer (without being paid) to “help” people in the places you visit.

As you can easily gather by the origin of the word voluntourism blends volunteering and tourism to describe something which imitates helping others while being on a holiday. And unfortunately, things rarely work well when we try to do this.

Usually, when it comes to voluntourism, the volunteers are asked to do tasks which are not distributed according to the person’s skills and qualification and they are extremely short-termed. No commitment or preparation is required and the “volunteering” is added as a bonus of the holiday, not with the goal of making a long-lasting change or impact. The needs of the community or the effect this short-term volunteer attempt will have are rarely considered.

 

Where is the focus?

To put it simply – the core purpose of international volunteering is to make an impact, support the local community, do quality work, and make a long-lasting change. Travelling is something which comes as part of doing this work.

Voluntourism, on the other hand, has the main goal of travelling and doing volunteer work is an aspect of the holiday designed to make the trip more interesting or exciting for the traveller.

 

More harm than good?

The main purpose of voluntourism is to bring satisfaction of doing something good and helping someone while you are enjoying your holiday but there is much more to it than that. The thing with voluntourism that you need to be concerned with the after-effects of your voluntourist activities. Will you do more harm than good?

First, it is very important if you will even be able to do the job you are asked – do you have the skills and knowledge, are you prepared to do this type of work? Nobody hires people to do a job they are not well-trained and educated to do, why should volunteering be different?

How will your work affect the community after you are gone? We have all heard about countless examples of how much of a negative influence short-term volunteering has at orphanages and foster homes. It is not rocket science to realise that children don’t need unqialifed people who don’t even speak their mother tongue to appear and disappear in their lives. They need stable carers who they can form long-lasting relationships with.

So ask yourself: Will your work have any value after you have gone away? Is it inspiring change and making a difference for the community or is it something which any local could have easily done without you around?

 

Voluntourism as a legtimate, stable source of income

There are valid arguments for why “voluntours” can be perfectly fine to particiapte in. One is that by letting overseas (rich) tourists particpate in some of their activities, small NGOs have the possibility to earn a stable and relatively easy income to cover some, or all of their costs.

Getting funding from big donors such as foundations and corporations can be arduous work and risky business. You can be lucky and get funding for a year or so, but often it is difficult to get funding in this way in the long-term. Also, getting big donations that will last you a long time onvolves a lot of paper work and bureaucracy, beyond the means of a small local NGO. 

The option of having a steady stream of foreign volunteers who come and go can be a more manageable way to get an income for a project. As long as the projects are sustainable and the volountourists do not cause harm as such, this can be absolutely fine – especially if the voluntourists gain some new knowledge or gain some valuable insights in the process.

 

Orphanages as a business

There is nothing bad about having good intentions and doing something good while on a holiday but there are risks which need to be considered. To make it worse there are organisations which just scam people and take advantage of them because they know the power of human empathy. An example from Haiti:

“After the earthquake, many orphanages were set up just to make money from foreign volunteers. Traditionally in Haiti, we didn’t have orphanages. Once people realised they could make money from this, the orphanages began to appear. In some cases, the children there actually have parents.”

The same phenomenon has been documented in places like Ghana and Cambodia. It turns out that most of the children have living parents who are so poor they have not other option than “renting out” their children to “orphanage projects who then charge voluntourists who pay them to get a chance to feel good about themselves while they teach the children something.

 

Volunteering for the right reasons

Volunteering is not supposed to be about ego-boosting and social media fame (the White Savoir mentality). It is about assisisting local leadership in their endeavour to bring about positive change. Meaningful projects need to aim for long-term positive impact on communities and individuals.

There are many programmes which provide people with the necessary preparation, training, and education while allowing them to travel, discover new cultures, and do work which is actually needed and appreciated by the locals. International volunteering is not to be taken lightly and people who decide to participate in voluntourism need to choose projects that are suited for that purpose, something that will not do more harm than good. 

 

Projects suitable for voluntourists

If you only have a few weeks to “something good” while you are travelling, we recommend staying away from projects that involve children or other vulnerable people.

Choose something where you can do something practical together with local communities who are already doing it. Humbly ask if you can be of assistance. Don’t “help” in ways that you might think is relevant, but is not asked for by the commuity. 

Programmes for international volunteers

We recommend reading this article about how to identify a quality volunteer programme. 

“Signs of quality in international volunteering”

On the same page you also find some examples of international volunteer programmes that provide adequate pre-service or in-service training of volunteers.

 

“To put it simply – the core purpose of internatinal volunteering is to make an impact, support the local community, do quality work, and make a long-lasting change.

Travelling is something which comes as part of doing this work.

“The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm?

A holiday helping out in an orphanage can be a rewarding experience. But voluntourism supports a system that is breaking up families by Tina Rosenberg – who is writing for The Guardian

Children Education

“Voluntourism: When You Take More Than You Leave Behind”

Listen to the experiences of Madara Žgutė who volunteered at an orphanage in Ghana, only to find out that three quarters of the children there in fact had at least one living parent.

Voluntourism vs International Volunteering
What does it take to become an International Development Volunteer?

In order to enrol in the 10 month International Development Volunteer programme, you need to meet the following requirements: 

    • You are 18 years old or older.
    • You are ready to leave your home for 10 months to volunteer in a community environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
    • You have decided not to drink alcohol or take drugs for the entirety of the program.
    • You are eager to experience a multidisciplinary and collective training programme, which includes theoretical and practical activities.
    • You are ready to immerse yourself in a multicultural and diverse community.
    • You are ready to volunteer where you are most needed.
    • You look forward to engaging with the Humana People to People projects in a spirit of cooperation, mutual learning and respect.
    • You are committed to learn about people, cultures, values and traditions, and to share your knowledge and stories with the public after your travels.

More articles about aspects of sustainable and responsible volunteering

 

 

Reflecting & Sharing

Reflecting on your experience is an important aspect of any volunteer programme. It is highly valuable not only for you but also for others. What did you learn from reality?

5 Responsible Volunteering Tips

Are you researching how to go about volunteering abroad in a responsible & ethical way? In this post we share some resources that we think could be useful for you – at least we hope so!

Advice from an ex-volunteer

“Take your time. Prepare yourself. The longer, the better. Be realistic about your skills and use them wisely. And finally: Work with people. Solve problems shoulder to shoulder.”

Sustainability & volunteering

Sustainability reflects “the ability to continue a defined behaviour indefinitely”. A development project needs to ensure that all factors involved – environmental, social and economic – are in balance.

Solidarity or Charity?

On International Charity Day we ponder the differences between charity and solidarity. Charity, according to the United Nations, plays an important role in bringing about positive change. Is this true?

Be aware of stereotyping

As an international volunteer, you need to be aware of your negative stereotypes and implicit biases. You want to avoid unintentional neo-colonial behaviour. Proper training of volunteers is one way of doing it.

Responsible volunteering abroad resources

The topic of how to avoid the neo-colonial, eurocentric perspective in international volunteering is an important one. On this page, you will find articles, tips and news about it.

Signs of Quality in Intl. Volunteering

Seven Signs of Quality which you can look for when you are trying to determine whether an international volunteer organisation is a transparent, legitimate, quality project provider or not.

Voluntourism vs international volunteering?

Pre-School Projects

International volunteering and voluntourism are oftentimes used interchangeably. Regardless, a significant distinction is present between those two terms and using them as synonyms is not entirely correct.

Before we go further with explaining why we think it’s a bad idea to mix the terms up let’s take a look at their definitions. We are taking the definitions from the Cambridge Dictionary and the Uncornered Market website.

Defining “volunteering”

Volunteering involves actions ‘performed with free will, for the benefit of the community, and not primarily for financial gain’ (Leigh et al., 2011). In essence, we give our time and skills to benefit others.

 

Defining “voluntourism”

A type of holiday in which you work as a volunteer (without being paid) to “help” people in the places you visit.

As you can easily gather by the origin of the word voluntourism blends volunteering and tourism to describe something which imitates helping others while being on a holiday. And unfortunately, things rarely work well when we try to do this.

Usually, when it comes to voluntourism, the volunteers are asked to do tasks which are not distributed according to the person’s skills and qualification and they are extremely short-termed. No commitment or preparation is required and the “volunteering” is added as a bonus of the holiday, not with the goal of making a long-lasting change or impact. The needs of the community or the effect this short-term volunteer attempt will have are rarely considered.

 

Where is the focus?

To put it simply – the core purpose of international volunteering is to make an impact, support the local community, do quality work, and make a long-lasting change. Travelling is something which comes as part of doing this work.

Voluntourism, on the other hand, has the main goal of travelling and doing volunteer work is an aspect of the holiday designed to make the trip more interesting or exciting for the traveller.

 

More harm than good?

The main purpose of voluntourism is to bring satisfaction of doing something good and helping someone while you are enjoying your holiday but there is much more to it than that. The thing with voluntourism that you need to be concerned with the after-effects of your voluntourist activities. Will you do more harm than good?

First, it is very important if you will even be able to do the job you are asked – do you have the skills and knowledge, are you prepared to do this type of work? Nobody hires people to do a job they are not well-trained and educated to do, why should volunteering be different?

How will your work affect the community after you are gone? We have all heard about countless examples of how much of a negative influence short-term volunteering has at orphanages and foster homes. It is not rocket science to realise that children don’t need unqialifed people who don’t even speak their mother tongue to appear and disappear in their lives. They need stable carers who they can form long-lasting relationships with.

So ask yourself: Will your work have any value after you have gone away? Is it inspiring change and making a difference for the community or is it something which any local could have easily done without you around?

“To put it simply – the core purpose of internatinal volunteering is to make an impact, support the local community, do quality work, and make a long-lasting change.

Travelling is something which comes as part of doing this work.

Voluntourism as a legtimate, stable source of income

There are valid arguments for why “voluntours” can be perfectly fine to particiapte in. One is that by letting overseas (rich) tourists particpate in some of their activities, small NGOs have the possibility to earn a stable and relatively easy income to cover some, or all of their costs.

Getting funding from big donors such as foundations and corporations can be arduous work and risky business. You can be lucky and get funding for a year or so, but often it is difficult to get funding in this way in the long-term. Also, getting big donations that will last you a long time onvolves a lot of paper work and bureaucracy, beyond the means of a small local NGO. 

The option of having a steady stream of foreign volunteers who come and go can be a more manageable way to get an income for a project. As long as the projects are sustainable and the volountourists do not cause harm as such, this can be absolutely fine – especially if the voluntourists gain some new knowledge or gain some valuable insights in the process.

 

Orphanages as a business

There is nothing bad about having good intentions and doing something good while on a holiday but there are risks which need to be considered. To make it worse there are organisations which just scam people and take advantage of them because they know the power of human empathy. An example from Haiti:

“After the earthquake, many orphanages were set up just to make money from foreign volunteers. Traditionally in Haiti, we didn’t have orphanages. Once people realised they could make money from this, the orphanages began to appear. In some cases, the children there actually have parents.”

The same phenomenon has been documented in places like Ghana and Cambodia. It turns out that most of the children have living parents who are so poor they have not other option than “renting out” their children to “orphanage projects who then charge voluntourists who pay them to get a chance to feel good about themselves while they teach the children something.

 

Volunteering for the right reasons

Volunteering is not supposed to be about ego-boosting and social media fame (the White Savoir mentality). It is about assisisting local leadership in their endeavour to bring about positive change. Meaningful projects need to aim for long-term positive impact on communities and individuals.

There are many programmes which provide people with the necessary preparation, training, and education while allowing them to travel, discover new cultures, and do work which is actually needed and appreciated by the locals. International volunteering is not to be taken lightly and people who decide to participate in voluntourism need to choose projects that are suited for that purpose, something that will not do more harm than good. 

 

Projects suitable for voluntourists

If you only have a few weeks to “something good” while you are travelling, we recommend staying away from projects that involve children or other vulnerable people.

Choose something where you can do something practical together with local communities who are already doing it. Humbly ask if you can be of assistance. Don’t “help” in ways that you might think is relevant, but is not asked for by the commuity. 

“Voluntourism: When You Take More Than You Leave Behind”

Listen to the experiences of Madara Žgutė who volunteered at an orphanage in Ghana, only to find out that three quarters of the children there in fact had at least one living parent.

What does it take to become an International Development Volunteer?

In order to enrol in the 10 month International Development Volunteer programme, you need to meet the following requirements: 

    • You are 18 years old or older.
    • You are ready to leave your home for 10 months to volunteer in a community environment 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
    • You have decided not to drink alcohol or take drugs for the entirety of the program.
    • You are eager to experience a multidisciplinary and collective training programme, which includes theoretical and practical activities.
    • You are ready to immerse yourself in a multicultural and diverse community.
    • You are ready to volunteer where you are most needed.
    • You look forward to engaging with the Humana People to People projects in a spirit of cooperation, mutual learning and respect.
    • You are committed to learn about people, cultures, values and traditions, and to share your knowledge and stories with the public after your travels.
Voluntoursim vs Responsible Volunteering