Is Voluntourism Terrible?

Approx read: 3 mins

Trending: well-meaning tourists squeeze in a little altruism between a morning hike and an ‘authentic’ buffet back at the hotel around dinner time. 

What could possibly go wrong?

While dropping in for a day may boost your ego, enrich your Insta and pad your CV, are your efforts as meaningful and long-term for locals?

Building things

We’ve all seen those cute pics of sunburnt tourists smiling into the camera, bearing -heaven-help- power tools. What happens when one gets distracted and injures herself or someone else? 

How sound is a load-bearing wall built by people with no construction experience?

Sure, ex-US President Jimmy Carter is often seen wielding a hammer in his house-building projects, but the guy grew up on a farm.

Experienced local labourers often get the day off when the cruise ship rolls in. This means they get to stay at home and watch their kids not eat due to the money they’re not making that day.

Painting things

See above

Teaching

Teaching songs to the cute kids is great, but after the song is over, do you have the qualifications to discuss the grammar points of the past simple in ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb?’ Are words like lamb, fleece, and snow relevant vocabulary for the regional and communicative needs of the students? Is your visit interrupting a biology lesson?

It’s not just about inappropriate songs, it’s about safety, too. How do organisers screen potential teachers?

Beach Clean-up

You join a beach clean-up for a small donation. Then pay a small fee for an official pic to document the experience.

Do you have appropriate safety gear for the task? What happens if you get stuck by a needle hidden under a pile of plastic?

What happens to that mountain of bags after the photo-op? Does it go to a dedicated waste treatment area? Or do scammers ‘recycle’ it by spreading it back all over the conveniently-located beach for the next group of fee-paying volunteers?

Things to think about before you sign up

Are you qualified to do the task? 

Could a local do the job better/faster/more safely?

Are you taking a day’s work away from a local?

Will your presence be disruptive or harmful?

Does the job provide a long-term benefit to the community?

But I just want to make a difference!

And you can. Spend a few hours shopping for locally-produced products. Skip the all-inclusive buffet and take your friends to the taco joint. Buy school supplies locally and deliver them via local transport, directly to a school in need. (Pencils, notebooks and toilet paper are often top of the list, but check first) Don’t litter, and raise hell with tourists who do.

Still want to volunteer?

Show your commitment to your cause by doing research and communicating with volunteer organisations before your trip. For more info on how to do it right, check out articles by two of our favourite voluntourists Monica Axelsson and Gwendolyn Janke. 

 

Sarah is a blogger, writer and amateur palaeontologist from New Orleans. When not writing or digging dinosaurs, she teaches English.