Deconstructing ‘Voluntourism’

By September 19, 2018Blog

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Voluntourism is a controversial word and varies from theory to practice. At it’s best, it can connect people who want to make a difference to causes they support and that actually make a difference. At its worst, it can cause more harm to the communities that well-intended people desire to assist. Critics of voluntourism point to valid concerns regarding how the volunteer industry ethically functions. It is a multi-billion dollar industry that sends millions of people abroad every year. Volunteer experiences exist on a sliding scale of risk, reward, and healthy community engagement and typically promise to be rewarding for their volunteers. Besides varying in how rewarding these opportunities actually are for volunteers, more importantly they also aren’t always necessarily helpful from a community development perspective.

For instance, studies on short-term volunteer programs, that typically last around 2-3 weeks, have found these experiences to have a detrimental effect on the healthy child development of children in lower-income countries (LICs). Especially for children living in orphanages, there are emotionally damaging impacts on children from unnatural attachments and the unhealthy cycle of short-term relationships versus healthier ones they could be receiving from long-term guardians. Beyond programs that involve children, there are a wealth of examples of well meaning organizations projecting principles of White Savorism onto international communities with the intention to help, but often with an execution that is at best reminiscent of colonialism and at worst a continuation of it.

Some volunteer organizations also charge their volunteers up to $10,000 for 2-3 week-long trips. These are largely for-profit providers that lack transparency with volunteers regarding where fees go. Many people who participate in volunteer vacations are unaware they are going through a third party organizer that keeps the majority of their money – money that could be going directly to local communities volunteers are traveling to help. At times, the local organizations these volunteer agencies support also keep children’s living conditions intentionally poor so that people who visit will feel compelled to give more money – which the local organizations then keep for themselves.

Because volunteer agencies vary in how they demonstrate programatic effectiveness, transparency, and ethical engagement, it’s easy to feel turned off to the concept entirely. It’s true, in an industry that can do such harm, where is the benefit? Where is the actual example of philanthropy at work? This model for voluntourism clearly requires a revision on several scores. While there are very serious cons to the industry, like all things, industries can pivot based on new learning and authentic inclusivity. We can evolve it to be better at serving international communities in need. As a concept, voluntourism is about collaboration and coming together to be a bigger part of solving the world’s most pressing issues. While nuanced, there are absolutely ways to approach volunteering abroad that are both healthy and sustainable.

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A Healthier Way

When thinking how to approach underserved communities abroad, self-awareness is key. How do we as curious, well-meaning individuals ask good questions in our approach and desire to help? How do we move towards solution-building when we encounter issues or experience confusion? We’re here to move constructively past the shortcomings we have seen and experienced in the field in nuanced and ultimately productive ways.

With WECO, we seek to embrace difficulties as they present themselves in as productive a way as possible. As long as dominant powers hold resources and embody outdated approaches to philanthropy, we believe this field will always have controversy and provide plenty of forks in the road regarding ethical implementation of resources and aid. History sides against us in this regard, in terms of how colonial powers interact with lower-income nations in paternalistic and imperialistic ways. At each turn, practitioners of international development – especially those working with volunteer agencies – will have to work hard to be more empathetic, flexible, self-aware, and adaptable to new information, to discontinue embodying the White Hero narratives that dominate the industry. They will have to listen, authentically, to local communities, and keep an open, ethical mind while navigating the difficult moments of this work.

In our minds, there is no one “right way” to approach how to empower communities, although there are plenty of wrong ways. We know international development is a complex, shifting field, and that there are a myriad of different contexts (individual, social, historical, cultural, political) to consider when even brainstorming how to get involved in lifting underserved communities abroad. It’s like solving a puzzle: there are different angles to go about doing it and no one starting point is necessarily more or less correct than another. The best way to go about solving this puzzle is to look at it from several different angles, for a more holistic perspective. There is plenty of room for creativity in working to come up with the best solution, and we work to achieve this by growing our understanding and appreciation of complexity. We strongly believe the best way to achieve this multi-angled perspective is to collaborate with people who have access to those angles, people who live and work in the actual communities they positively impact. Real solutions come from people who are deeply invested in their, and their community’s, future. Imagine what local organizations could create, design, or build if they were only given the resources and opportunities to do so.

How successful we are at solving the puzzle before us is a combination of our motivations for participating in the work we do, how aware we are of the entire, broader context, and the feasibility of the work based on circumstances before us. As individuals, it’s fairly easy for us to know our own personal contexts because we live them – it’s our schema of the world. This personal context comes from our own experience, and can help us make informed decisions about how we approach learning from and about international communities (i.e. that broader context). With WECO, we know we’re constantly in the position of “learning from” not “doing for” our partners who have valuable perspectives and solutions. 

Our projects involve people who have spent years addressing and digesting critical issues and who have developed viable solutions from their experience. It is their world, and their lives, and we act as a supplemental charge to provide a necessary boost for their programs. Once we see the bigger picture, we can paint it for people back home in a way that we hope deepens their understanding of global aid and viable solutions for underserved communities. We know not everyone has the time and energy to devote to investigating that wider context, yet are well-intended, generous people who want to get involved in something real, something that directly benefits communities.

Our role as an organization is to listen to people and collaborate on solutions designed to satisfy real need. The way in which we involve volunteers is 100% contingent on the needs of the project. This means we create both unique volunteer experiences as well as authentic, needs-based development projects. Volunteering abroad with WECO is primarily a learning experience for those who want to give back while experiencing a new, exciting place. The potential to grow from such an experience is incredible, on both personal and interpersonal levels. By framing our volunteer trips this way we can allay expectations about “saving the world” and instead offer a new definition of aid as stabilizing global imbalances (often ones our country has at least in part created) with equitable resource distribution. The transformation or reward that comes from such an experience drastically depends on the volunteer’s capacity for introspection, self-awareness, compassion, and sense of curiosity and adventure. As such, we organize our volunteer program in a way that will encourage exploration of the self and different elements related to the places we go.

Some details about how we structure our trips include:

      1. We don’t ask volunteers to pay exorbitant fees to our organization. Instead, we involve them in our project fundraising, and channel those resources into a project we collaborate on with local organizations.
      2. We don’t do short-term or long-term volunteer placements. We work as a group under the guidance and direction of staff from our partner organizations who work with us on-the-ground throughout the duration of our time in country.
      3. Projects are a result of a collaborative agreement we make with our partners regarding what needs-based project they decide their organization needs, and that likewise fits with our mutual vision for gender equality and women’s empowerment.
      4. Project trips last from around ten days to three weeks. Project work is usually half of the total trip, and consists of nonessential labor that is done in tandem with, and under the discretion of, our partners. This ensures the long-term success of our projects are not volunteer dependent and can instead be locally-sustained.
      5. We use project funds to hire as many local laborers as possible – and ensure they receive fair wages – so that we are putting money back into local economies.
      6. Post-project travel is tailored to the interests and budgets of our volunteers. We provide a selection of eco-friendly/responsible travel options per trip to create a meaningful and ethical travel experience.

Looking Ahead

The voluntourism industry is past due for a renovation. As an industry, we can do a better job of ‘doing good.’ To achieve this we have to move beyond having good intentions into the realm of creating authentic, reciprocal relationships with people who live and work in communities abroad. We have to come from a place of self-examination, self-awareness, and true empathy. Individuals who have been given less access and less resources have made more out of less. They are resilient communities with critical knowledge about how to solve pressing issues for their families and neighbors. Local organizations run by dedicated community leaders are the best sources of information on what their country, homes, and lives need. Who else would be more invested in securing that better future? Certainly not a foreign volunteer.

We believe in our partners and invest in them: in their competencies, and their capacities to make a difference for their community members. We know what underserved communities need most are tools, resources, and opportunities to build healthy solutions for their lives. We know that, as a sector, we need to be better about providing those things if we truly want an equitable world. With WECO, we support people on the frontline who are working in their communities, through project work and also through post-project travel.  We shop in local markets and women’s cooperatives, support community-led tourist activities, stay in locally-run hotels or hostels, and buy eco-friendly, handmade products that provide economic opportunities for people who live in the countries we visit. Our approach to problem-solving in the industry is to redefine volunteering abroad based on principles of philanthropy instead of principles of profit or romanticized ideas of aid. As a global nonprofit, our primary focus is encouraging and supporting sustainable community work as defined by the needs of communities we visit. This is our core value to the work that we do – and our revision of voluntourism.