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Voluntourism – who is it helping?

Written by Chelsie Willis on August 4th, 2014.      0 comments

Voluntourism – who is it helping?

Voluntourism FijiA few days ago I read yet another article questioning the benefits of ‘voluntourism’.  Citing that “(voluntourism) is one of the fastest growing trends in travel today…(and that) more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year (on voluntourism)”, the article questioned "whether some trips help young adults pad their resumes or college applications more than they help those in need”. As a passionate believer in the benefits that travel and volunteering can have as a tool for youth development, the article immediately drew my attention.

Critics of voluntourism are not hard to find, and consequently neither articles of this nature. Sadly, in many cases, their criticisms are worryingly accurate. Done badly, the long term socio, economic and environmental impacts of volunteering programmes in developing countries can be devastating; from the rapid depletion of already scarce but essential resources (including water, food and land for crops), to the promotion of ‘Orphanage Tourism’ (For example, did you know in Cambodia over 75% of the children living in orphanages actually have one or more living parents?*). On a personal level I once turned down a Programme Manager job working for a voluntourism operator, when, at the final interview stage the CEO advised me that the primary focus of my role was to ‘tap up the rich kids, to keep me in my designer shirts’; sadly he was not joking. Luckily, this approach is (in my experience) not the norm and, done well, voluntourism can be of huge benefit to communities who find themselves with a genuine need for external skills or expertise and where a fair, sustainable partnership with the local community can be established. There are plenty of expert guides available online to help you to chose a legitimate voluntourism operator (such as this one which can be a good starting point.
I do, however, feel the need to challenge the idea that a young person using a volunteering programme to build their skill set is a bad thing. Yes, of course a volunteers' motivations are not entirely altruistic – it will (hopefully) be an amazing (perhaps once in a lifetime) experience for the volunteer and will undoubtably look great on their CV. But lets be honest, do you give to charity in spite of it making you feel good (if at all)? Do you undertake an optional training course in order to better serve your company? Is there actually such a thing as a selfless good deed?
The fact is that the ability to take the initiative and challenge oneself are important transferable skills - ones that employers regard highly. Taking the initiative to raise sufficient funds to go on the trip in the first place, (as is the case with Student Horizons’ new volunteering expeditions); travelling to an often remote area of a new country (perhaps one whose language you do not yet speak); volunteering your time and skills (while learning many more from those with whom you are working); understanding different cultural norms (especially ones that challenge your personal beliefs); dealing with new illnesses (especially without the immediate comfort of your family or friends); learning to 'make do’ and improvise (without the aid of the oracle that is ‘Google’) and most of all realising the depth of your own abilities IS a challenge. At any age.

Personally, I believe this should be celebrated, not criticised. Challenge. Discover. Achieve. If the future of our world is in our young people’s hands, do we not want them to be up-skilling themselves wherever possible and learning from others around the world? Especially from those who, because of the location in which they were born, might never have the chance to pass on their own specialist skills and expertise to the ‘wider world', were it not for the reach and popularity of voluntourism. 

By Chelsie Willis - Student Horizons Community Partnerships Manager