Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, is a travel trend that has had some controversy but is still very popular, particularly in the U.S. It is a multi-billion dollar industry where people can travel all over the world, to impoverished countries near and far, so they can work at orphanages, farms, and animal sanctuaries. It’s a vacation without the guilt.
Introductions to the program usually start off with something like, “Looking for a beautiful vacation in Africa, while providing aid to desperate orphanages? Look no further!”
This kind of tourism has created a mindset of the “first world savior” who is gracing a developing country with their assistance and mere presence. Often times they are doing more harm than they realize. First off, the experience, in general, is more geared towards the person doing the volunteering. Their experiences will fuel their ideas of poverty, war, and outdated stereotypes, all while inflating their ego.
Of course, there are many people that do great work volunteering in countries in need. However, what these people (the orphans, refugees, sick, etc.) really need, is to be treated like a human. They are often victims of extreme circumstances, and having visitors come to “help” can make things worse. Volunteers come for short periods of time and are unlikely to ever return, abandoning the people the established relationships with.
I see so many pictures of people I know, who go to war zones and orphanages and developing nations. I see them surrounded by adorable children hugging and kissing them, even after knowing them for only a few weeks. I can’t help but be saddened by how the children must feel when, time and time again, the people they become attached to (who coddle them and give them affection) are constantly abandoning them. It is a rotation that has been proven to be damaging to a child’s mental health.
I feel sickened when I see all the vlogs on YouTube, the Facebook posts, the Instagram photosets, and all the noise on social media that people put out there. They talk about how appreciated they were. How much they changed these children’s lives.
The reality is, these volunteer programs are damaging. As wholehearted as some of these efforts and intentions may be, the volunteers are not the ones who will actually be “saving” or benefiting the community.
Instead of thinking about what we can give and do for them, we need to think about how we can help them help themselves. Think of the classic “give a man a fish scenario.” What will benefit the communities most, is the opportunities and tools to work, learn, and create for themselves. Charities like Heifer, who donate animals to villages, are a great example.
My suggestion is, if you are genuinely passionate about helping others, do extensive research on where best you can direct your efforts. Avoid the exploitation supported by the voluntourism industries, and strive to make a real, visible change.
I’m not trying to criticize people who have done this, as a lot of this thought may not have even not occurred to them, and surely the damage was not intentional. This is merely my opinion, and I welcome you all to comment your thoughts and insights below.