Rebecca Chong 
Staff Writer

“Voluntourism — a way to travel the world and volunteer; service and sightseeing all rolled into one!”

This is the appeal underlying the travel trend of more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists, who in total spend around $2 billion a year to go abroad and offer their time and skills to underprivileged communities. The most  typical volunteer tourists are women between the ages of 20 to 25; the top three destinations are the Philippines, India and Thailand, according to a 2014 volunteer trends report.

The idea of service work abroad is hardly new. It can be traced to the efforts of faith-based organizations like the Catholic Network of Volunteer Service, which aims to provide service opportunities rooted in faith. Though it was founded in 1963, the tradition has its roots in missionary work, a trend found throughout history. People of the church go out to various communities to teach faith, and also provide them with education and resources.

The more recent, secular approach to volunteer service culminated in John F. Kennedy’s creation of the United States Peace Corps in 1961. Its mission “to promote world peace and friendship” was established in the wake of the rise of postcolonial nations and growing distrust of American intervention in developing countries. The Corps currently serve 68 countries with about 7,000 volunteers, with a minimum time commitment of two years for the volunteers themselves.

Other areas that have seen an increase in volunteer-focused travel are study abroad programs with a service component, college-based organizations that do service trips during school breaks, and “gap-year-takers” who make volunteering a part of their experience.

This “new” trend of voluntourism has a distinctly different implication than many others of its kind — the potential for monetary profit. Many companies in the tourism industry have capitalized on the “market for meaningful travel”, one that has emerged from a resulting shift in the public conscience about America’s privileged position in the world. The increase in companies who offer volunteer travel packages that have already been organized and set up in the host country make it an easy, appealing choice for those who want to do good but do not have the time to research.

The fundamental question of voluntourism is, however — who is it really helping? On one hand, the community receives a steady stream of volunteers who are willing to dedicate their time, labor and skills towards a local issue. On the other hand, the the volunteer gets the experience of cultural immersion, volunteer experience and community interaction along with a nice resume boost.

It seems like a wonderful win-win for both the community and the volunteer. However, the unintentional effects of volunteering have long term ramifications for the community’s economy, education systems and more. This is seen when volunteers do not have the proper skills to fulfill the roles they sign up for, making their service less effective and sustainable.

A case study in one of the more popular forms of voluntourism demonstrates this. Teaching English, on the surface,  seems like a fairly neutral and altruistic act — English is ‘the language of commerce, of education and economic advancement’, so it naturally follows that people in developing countries would benefit from learning the language. There are two main issues with this however; how the teaching is done and if it is actually an effective tool for sustainable development.

Often times volunteers who go on these excursions are not trained in any formal manner; simply being a native speaker of English is enough of a qualification. It sets up a biased standard in which people of developing nations are not seen as worthy of class instruction that is as rigorous, standardized and competent as those in developed nations. Moreover, the lack of training and the stream of visiting ‘teachers’ means that students often get sub par lessons. The lack of continuity and constancy in their education through these different volunteers results in their learning to be stagnant and ineffective.

The question of how useful English language skills are in the context of socioeconomic improvement is complex in that it must take into account how these skills are being used and what the effect it places on the identities of communities being taught. The belief that English is necessary for finding a job is built upon the assumption that there already are jobs available and that many people simply aren’t qualified for them. This notion places the blame of unemployment squarely on the abilities of individuals rather than taking into account larger systemic forces such as economic policies and resource management.

This is one example of how volunteer service can be unthoughtful and unintentionally harmful — the volunteer may be taking the place of a more qualified local teacher, thus taking the job of a person who will more likely be a sustainable and more effective teacher because they understand the culture and are a part of the community.

Another big criticism of voluntourism is how it fosters dependency on foreign aid, thus leaving the local community barren of the basic infrastructure to create self-sustained growth and development.

A particularly salient example of this is the history of health camps in Nepal that have been dubbed ‘medical voluntourism’. These are short-term installations focused on specific health issues like dental health, reproductive care or even speech therapy. While care is given, the issues of cultural competence and sensitivity to the needs of the population are often swept under the rug. In the political context of the People’s War in Nepal, it became a gesture of support towards the Nepali people against the Maoists. The unintended consequences of these actions ripples across many domains of life, including politics, and resulted in social changes that have large effects on the country as a whole.

With all this in mind, how does one navigate the pitfalls of wanting to see the world, wanting to do good, but not quite knowing how? No one argues that the intent to help others is a bad one — altruism is a universally lauded ideal. For those who wish to dedicate time out of their lives to volunteer, being thoughtful and thorough about researching makes all the difference. That means beginning to understand the country and region, the non-profit you work with, and realistically assessing your own skills. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to see the world, but being mindful of your position in relation to the place you go is important in making your interactions with others more effective and reciprocal. Perhaps the biggest realization of all is seeing that you could make the biggest impact in a domestic, local community. That truly is the most mindful way to take the urge of altruism and service and make it more sustainable.

Picture By: Mennonite Church USA Archives

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