Deconstructing ‘Voluntourism’

By September 19, 2018Blog

Voluntourism is a critical word to our work that is loaded with meaning. It is controversial, 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 people abroad every year. Volunteer experiences exist on a sliding scale of risk, reward, and healthy community engagement. These opportunities often promise to be greatly rewarding for their volunteers. Besides varying in how rewarding these opportunities actually are for volunteers, more importantly they also aren’t necessarily helpful for community development.

Researchers have conducted studies on children in lower-income countries (LICs) who live in orphanages and are visited by volunteers who spend 2-3 weeks with them. They found volunteer experiences to have an emotionally damaging impact on the children due to their unnatural attachments to short-term volunteers versus healthy relationships with long-term guardians.

Some organizations who run “do good, feel good” experiences also charge volunteers anywhere from $3,000 – $10,000 for 2-3 week-long trips. These are largely for-profit providers who aren’t very transparent with volunteers regarding where their 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. At times, the local organizations these agencies support will keep children’s living conditions intentionally poor so that people who visit them will feel compelled to give more money – which the local organizations then keep for themselves. This has come to be known as orphanage tourism, and is prevalent in countries with an established aid presence such as Cambodia, Thailand, and Peru.

Because volunteer agencies vary in how they demonstrate programatic effectiveness, transparency, and ethical engagement, many people are turned off to the concept entirely. While there are cons, it is also important to remember that the industry isn’t all bad, and can in fact be quite good in 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. There are absolutely ways to approach volunteering abroad that are both healthy and sustainable.


A Healthier Way

When discussing how to approach helping underrepresented communities, it’s all in how we as curious, well-meaning individuals ask good questions and move towards active solution-building whenever we encounter issues. Key questions to keep in mind when researching volunteer agencies are: Where does the money from volunteer fees go? How do organizations choose their international partners? What are their relationships like with the local communities they support? What kind of support do they provide their partner NGOs? How do they frame their volunteer experiences? What kinds of expectations exist for volunteers? Etc.

How we operate with WECO is essentially to embrace difficulties as they present themselves in as productive a way as possible. We believe this field will always have controversy and will provide plenty of forks in the road regarding ethical implementation of resources and aid. History tends to side against us in this regard, in terms of how colonial powers reach out to developing nations in paternalistic, imperialist ways. At each turn, practitioners of international development – especially those working with volunteer agencies – will have to work to be more flexible, self-aware, and adaptable to new information as it comes, and to constantly navigate the difficult moments of this work in order to really have a quality impact. This latter point is perhaps the most important. For instance, if people frown when we mention we participate in volunteer trips abroad, we don’t take it personally and don’t get defensive. Instead we try to probe their concern with questions and answer any they have about our operations. In this way, we are both learning about the validity of our own, individual perspectives while working towards more common ground. Common ground that will also serve a wider purpose in propelling us closer to valuable solutions to pressing global problems. We’re not here to argue about or critique the nuances of volunteer programs that have failed or are failing; we’re here to constructively move past the shortcomings we have seen and experienced in the field in equally nuanced, yet ultimately productive ways.

We know there is no one “right way” to approach how to empower communities, and plenty of wrong ways. We know international development is a complex, shifting field, and that there are a myriad of different contexts to consider when even brainstorming how to get involved in providing aid to underrepresented communities (e.g. individual, social, historical, cultural, political). In some ways we see it as solving a puzzle: there are different ways to go about doing it, and no one way is necessarily more or less right than another, especially in the context of working with vulnerable communities. The best way to go about solving this puzzle is to look at it from several different angles, for a better, 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!

That world is, essentially, what WECO works to actualize. We act as a bridge for those resources and funnel them to people who are actively solving problems, primarily for underserved women and girls. 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). That is, assuming we don’t rely on our individual context as a sole source of knowledge. With WECO, we know we’re constantly in the position of “learning from” not “doing for” our partners in LICs, who have less resources and opportunity than our own country – but certainly not less perspective.

Once we see the bigger picture, we can paint it for people back home in a way that deepens their understanding about global aid and viable solutions for underserved communities. We operate on the basis that 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, tangible, and that directly benefits those in need. Our projects involve people who have spent years addressing and digesting critical issues in their communities. It is their world, and their lives, and we act as a supplemental charge (or catalyst, if you like chemistry) to provide whatever boost they need for their programs.

Our role as an organization is to listen to people, process their concerns, 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 us 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 personal and interpersonal levels. By framing our volunteer trips this way we can allay expectations on “saving the world” and instead offer a new definition of aid as bringing resources to places that desperately need them. The transformation or reward that comes from such an experience drastically depends on the person’s own 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.

If you’re interested in volunteering with us, please take a minute to read a few additional notes about how we structure our trips:

  1. We don’t have our volunteers 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

We wholeheartedly agree the voluntourism industry should revisit prevailing notions of the “hero narrative,” and instead do a better job of ‘doing good.’ Naturally, this must go beyond us having good intentions and into the realm of creating authentic, reciprocal relationships with people who live and work in underrepresented communities. These individuals may lack resources, but they do have critical knowledge about how to solve pressing issues for their community. After all, we have to remember: it is their country, their home, and their life. Who would be more invested in securing that better future?

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 underrepresented communities want most are tools, resources, and opportunities to build healthy solutions for themselves. 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 voluntourism in a healthy way. We strive to take a good idea that historically has varied in ethics and practice, and instead create a new, productive representation of it. 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 a core value of our trips, and our own version of voluntourism.

There are plenty of ways the international development field can improve, and it’s important to focus on constructive ways versus assumptive ones in moving towards that improvement. Especially with complicated arenas such as voluntourism, the industry’s ethical success will depend on us asking questions that help us get to the heart of not only understanding, but also improving the field. Voluntourism as an industry is far from perfect, and that is why it is so important for us to be solutions-focused as opposed to being merely critical of it. In this way, we’re working actively towards a better future together instead of fighting over the best way to do it. We owe it to our international partners – and ourselves – to embrace a mindset where we are constantly striving to be better.