As a researcher and consultant, I have taken part in a few development projects abroad, with varying levels of success at the project level. After these experiences, I have become protective of communities affected by international development and suspicious of the kind of volunteering where young people pay large sums of money to participate in community development.
When organizations or businesses send volunteers in place of trained professionals to take part in voluntourism, they may be taking a chance – risking their reputation along with the well-being of an entire community.
Many volunteer trips cost several thousand dollars, which means they are only accessible to groups of people with a significant disposable income. Saving or spending considerable time to raise that amount of money is not possible for a lot of people, especially youth. Students in particular may not have the time to fundraise and may need all of their personal income to go directly toward their tuition.
Generally, volunteer projects are held in countries where the dollar stretches far. Many of the associated costs, such as housing for volunteers, food and building materials are much cheaper than they would be in Canada. It seems that a few thousand dollars paid by hundreds of participants throughout the year should yield quite the profit for the parties who organize the trips.
Volunteer organizations would argue that cultural exchange benefits both locals and participants. But it is unlikely that this exchange would benefit everyone equally. This amount of money could go further to local economic development if it was put towards training or hiring the people who live there. When volunteers instead do these jobs, they are taking work away from them.
At the high cost of volunteering overseas, it’s important to ask some important questions about why people participate, why companies offer them, and who benefits most from the interaction.
Good voluntourism programs can teach participants leadership, team-building and communication skills. It looks great on a resume, gives people something to talk about and creates lasting memories.
Great voluntourism can inspire participants to become agents of change and encourage them to pursue noble causes and community engagement. It can also promote global citizenship, cultural exchange and learning.
Well executed voluntourism can have economic and environmental benefits for the places in which projects are implemented. Organizations may be putting money and labour into conservation efforts that could be underfunded in the community, which could potentially promote future cooperation or fundraising for other local projects. A community can also benefit from the construction of a new school, well or hospital – decreasing travel time and increasing access to services in their area.
Voluntourism can also take away resources, training and jobs from local people. In these projects, it is the foreigners who are expected to contribute to, and learn from, the project. Since voluntourism focuses heavily on the satisfaction of the client – the person paying for the experience – local people may not truly benefit from the interaction or intervention in their community.
Poorly implemented projects can create distrust, preventing positive cooperation in the future. Abandoned schools built by well-meaning volunteers and organizations now act as storage spaces, pointing to a lack of research by the organization. Some schools are placed in areas where there are not enough teachers, whereas others cannot afford supplies. It turns out that building a school does not ensure that it will be operative or functional in the way it was intended.
Well-implemented projects can still inadvertently lead to reliance if the right transfer of skills does not occur, leaving communities without support after the project ends and the volunteers return home.
The truly ugly side of voluntourism, which is also the ugly side of community development abroad in general, is a lack of true community participation and trust. The international development arena has its share of failed projects – not just by volunteers but by paid workers in the field of international project design, management and implementation.
Working abroad in areas that are contextually complicated and have completely different cultural groups has layer upon layer of influences and factors and all those involved should be incorporating a lot of education, training, time and experience.
For all the projects that do see success, there are many that do not. At their worst, community projects abroad without properly trained volunteers, field officers and coordinators can unintentionally contribute to misunderstandings, violence and even death. Sometimes, even with the right training, grave mistakes can occur and the guilt of these should not be borne on the shoulders of young volunteers.
Ideally, voluntourism will eventually evolve to benefit the entire local community, employing locals to assist in many parts of the projects. However, promoting local community service in one’s home country and sending in well-trained employees may be a better option.
In the end, it is up to the volunteers to select trustworthy organizations and provide honest feedback. As a paying customer, it is up to the volunteer to select projects where they feel their experience is truly needed, not where a local person could be filling that void. A great idea would be to ask participants to train someone as part of their volunteering to increase interaction, learning and future ownership.
Older volunteers can also offer their expertise (where needed or requested) in marketing or financial planning for local businesses or entrepreneurs. Others can offer workshops about social media or specific computer programs for local staff or youth. Tourism and volunteering still have a place in the future – but only once both learn to serve local communities, not their own self-interest.
By Izabela Wlodarczyk
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.