The Dangers of Voluntourism
In Western countries, a new fad has arisen. It often comes from the best of intentions. People want to help. They want to feel as if they are making a difference in the lives of those who are not as physically affluent as they are. This phenomenon, now being called “voluntourism,” is when unskilled or untrained volunteers travel overseas to offer aid to those in developing countries. This is seen in the rise in students participating in gap year teaching experiences in developing experiences, and the rise in “orphan tourism.” Although most people have good intentions, there can be negative side effects if the volunteering isn’t well thought through or well researched. In these cases, the volunteering can be downright damaging to those on the receiving end, and those who are actually offering the help are the only ones who benefit.
Overseas aid that doesn’t take into account the needs, desires and skill-sets of local people can be incredibly damaging to those communities. At worst, this attitude of white saviorism can be said to carry with it the historical baggage of colonialism. This unhelpful attitude often leads to volunteers doing more damage than anything. This is talked about at length in the book When Helping Hurts. The damage that voluntourism can do is a perfect example of hurting rather than helping. Best case scenario, the unscreened volunteers who come to teach kids are unqualified for the job. They don’t know how to teach. Because of this, not much is accomplished. The large amount of resources used to fund the volunteer’s trip could have been put toward the salary of a competent teacher, who would have offered the kids not only a better education, but a level of stability and permanence as well (The Voluntourist).
Orphanages and Attachment Disorders
Stability in relationships is a huge need for all children, and one that many orphans have been deprived of. For kids in orphanages, it’s damaging to have a whole host of people coming and leaving, people that they consistently get attached to, and then lose.
When temporary, untrained volunteers come to orphan homes, they often find incredibly affectionate children who cling to them, craving their affection. This unbridled need for affection from strangers isn’t a sign of a healthy child. Rather, it’s a sign of attachment disorders (Al Jezeera). Most of these children have never had the chance to form healthy attachments, and this has significantly harmed their development. The steady stream of temporary volunteers who often come through these homes only makes this worse. The children get used to becoming attached to these volunteers, only to have them leave, over and over again (Al Jezeera). This reinforces the belief that they won't have consistent people in their lives that love them, and that will stick around to take care of them.
The Darker Side of Orphanages
In the worst situations, voluntourism can actually be exploitive, for both the volunteer and the orphan, although the orphans get the worse end of the bargain. The most common way for this to happen is through corrupt orphanage owners. There are orphanages run by those who care more about making money than actually caring for orphans. The worst of these homes are not careful or selective about who comes to play with the children, often not requiring background checks for long term volunteers and letting tourists simply walk in to visit children without any sort of preparation (Al Jezeera). And for those who come to stay for a few months or a year, volunteering abroad can be incredibly expensive. Some of these trips cost as much as $5,000 (The Voluntourist). Many of the orphanages don’t put this money toward taking care of the children. Instead, they keep the children in bad conditions, to manipulate volunteers and visitors to donating to the home, in an attempt to increase the living condition of the kids. But instead of actually putting the donated money toward helping the children, it lines the pockets of the corrupt orphanage owners (Al Jezeera). And most of the children in the homes aren't even actually orphans.
In Cambodia, more than 74% of the children in orphanages have at least one living parent (orphanage.no). Their parents are poor, and hoped that leaving their children in the orphanage would give them a better education. In reality however, the children would have been better off staying with their families. In this way, orphan tourism and voluntourism can actually perpetuate a corrupt cycle.
Do Handouts Help?
And finally, when volunteers travel overseas to do work that they are not necessarily trained to do, it takes away from the local economy. Handing out products that were produced in America hurts businesses in the area that sell those products. Bringing in an outside group of volunteers to help paint a building or build a church takes away from locals who would otherwise be employed to complete those projects. Handouts don’t necessarily help. It’s better to partner with people who are local to the area, who have an in-depth understanding of the culture, language and needs of a community. This way, the help given will truly be impactful and needed, instead of something that does more harm than good.
The desire to want to help others is an admirable one, and very genuine in many people. So how does one avoid doing damage with one’s volunteer work? CLICK HERE for a list of ways to partner with those in developing countries, without doing more harm than good with your good intentions. Research the trips you go on and the organizations that you donate to carefully. There are many ways to volunteer your time and resources to make a lasting impact in the lives of others, without being a careless “voluntourist.”
"Cambodia's Orphan Business." Al Jazeera. People and Power, 27 June 2012. Web. <http:// www.aljazeera.com/programmes/peopleandpower/2012/05/201252243030438171.html>.
End Humanitarian Douchery. Web. <http://endhumanitariandouchery.co.nf/>.
ORPHANAGES: Not the Solution. N.p., n.d. Web. <orphanages.no>.
Sanguinetti, Chloe. "THE VOLUNTOURIST." The Voluntourist. Ed. Quentin Herlemont. 2013. Web. <http://the-voluntourist.com/the-film-voluntourist/>.