From helping to harming: A case for responsible voluntourism

By in Opinions

Fads fluctuate like a student’s motivation in the new year: man-buns, gluten-free diets, Donald Trump — we hope — #selfie, bae and the list goes on. Some last longer than others and some, like voluntourism, are definitely more troublesome.

Increasingly popular in a globalizing world with accessible travel options, voluntourism is as it sounds: a combination of volunteer work and tourism, service and vacation.

New voluntouring organizations are cropping up everywhere — a cursory Google search of “volunteer abroad” will garner over seven million results — and many promise benefits for both the givers and the receivers.

At a glance, voluntourism seems like a great idea and is often a classic way for university students to spend a couple summer weeks. See another country while helping the world! Voluntourism - Jeremy BritzDo something meaningful with your vacation! Improve the lives of the less fortunate!

In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education, Rebecca Tiessen, assistant professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, found that the “desire to help others” provided low motivation for Canadian youth to take part in volunteer abroad programs. In fact, helping others came after six other motivations, including career choice, personal growth and skills development.

In other words, some people go on voluntour trips under the false pretense of helping those in need. Missionaries used this same argument when they assumed they had the right to “civilize” the Aboriginal population in Canada — an assumption that was both false and led to many difficulties for Aboriginal people. Voluntourism is a present day re-enactment of such colonial discourse, supporting good old Rudyard Kipling’s poetic travesty “The White Man’s Burden.”

Nothing shouts privilege like flying across an ocean and most of a continent to swoop in on a community you will never again grace with your presence.

Hence, voluntouring is just another form of exploitation: travelers from the global north build experience and make themselves look and feel better — they make a commodity of those in the global south while strengthening a sense of exoticism and cultural difference.

Now, you might say, “Who cares?” Bona fide altruism doesn’t exist anyway — does it matter if voluntourists have personal motivations as long as they are providing a good service? Perhaps not. Unfortunately, aside from the reams of contrived selfies, voluntourism can cause more harm than good.

Think of a bunch of unskilled volunteers blasting through an area, putting down some shoddy foundations and then high-tailing it out again, back to their comfortable homes.

Such volunteers may have little cross-cultural understanding, imposing their values on others and spending insufficient time in communities to build that knowledge. Further, they are often badly suited to the tasks they are assigned, having no previous training or experience and, when all is said and done, they are not responsible for upkeep.

Yet, voluntourists can spend hundreds of dollars paying for their experience, not to mention the plane tickets. Surely this money would be better spent by hiring well-trained locals who understand the cultural context.

In spite of all this criticism, there are reputable organizations that offer volunteer opportunities outside of Canada and focus more on the volunteering and less on the tour side — and if you look closely, you will find them.

One such organization is St. Thomas More College’s own Intercordia program and another is Canada World Youth. Both provide valuable service to local communities in Canada and around the world while encouraging cultural awareness, youth leadership and long-term personal growth.

By all means, travel and volunteer, but carefully research voluntouring companies. Examine your motivations. Decide whether your skills will really benefit a community abroad. Look into volunteering options close to home. Remember that you will likely gain more than the receiving party and don’t delude yourself with grandiose thoughts of altruism.

Jessica Klaassen-Wright

Graphic: Jeremy Britz / Graphics Editor