For a while, voluntourism was celebrated as providing an alternative form of tourism that promoted sustainability and generosity. International volunteering was seen as a more reciprocal form of travel which benefited both the host community and the volunteer. Voluntourists were also seen as inherently GOOD people; people who were willing to not only give up their holidays to help others, but to pay for the opportunity to do so.
However, over the past few years, we’ve heard a lot about the problems associated with voluntourism - from the media, academia, NGOs and within the tourism industry itself. Critics argue that voluntourists are often unqualified and inexperienced, and subsequently can cause more harm than good. There have also been significant concerns around the lack of transparency with what happens to the (often hefty) fees paid by volunteers.
This is an important conversation to be having. According to GOOD Travel’s Adviser, Dr. Nancy McGehee of Virginia Tech, USA, as many as 10 million volunteers a year are spending up to $2 billion on the opportunity to volunteer overseas. Over the past ten years, we’ve also seen a huge growth in the number and range of organisations offering international voluntourism experiences - from small non-profit organisations based in just one country to large networks that offer voluntourism trips all around the world.
According to GOOD Travel’s Adviser, Dr. Nancy McGehee of Virginia Tech, USA, as many as 10 million volunteers a year are spending up to $2 billion on the opportunity to volunteer overseas.
So, can voluntourism be GOOD?
Let's start with some background.
GOOD Travel was deliberately started to provide an alternative to voluntourism. We knew that there were many travellers in the world who wanted to do GOOD and yet we felt that voluntourism was not always the best way for these travellers to channel their good intentions. We were particularly concerned with the unequal power dynamics between some voluntourists and local communities. Our goal with GOOD Travel was to provide an alternative to voluntourism where travellers could give back to the places they visit but in a way that empowered local communities and created genuine connections and shared learning between hosts and visitors.
However despite the many challenges with voluntourism, we're not trying to dismiss the concept of volunteering abroad altogether. In fact, GOOD Travel’s co-founders all began our careers working in voluntourism or volunteering ourselves. Our positive and negative experiences with voluntourism have been central in giving us the perspective we now have on the travel and tourism industry, and have enabled us to build strong partnerships with incredible people and organisations around the world.
So, should you volunteer overseas?
We’ve called on Sakai Naismith from Discover Elsewhere to help us answer the question - should you volunteer overseas? It's important to note here that we're talking specifically about voluntourism i.e. short-term volunteer programmes where volunteers pay for the experience, typically aren't required to have any specific qualifications and receive minimal training.
Sakai is passionate about travel beyond the map and creating travel experiences that change the way you'll see the world. He believes in creating sustainable tourism experiences and encouraging travellers to reflect on their impact. He believes that volunteering, even with the best of intentions, can have effects and repercussions that are far beyond the comprehension of many volunteers. Sakai recommends speaking to a local expert before signing up to volunteer.
Speaking to a local expert (who does not work for a volunteer organisation in the area) is the best way to navigate the cultural, financial and social intricacies that exist wherever you want to help the most.
Together with Sakai we’ve come up with 5 questions we think you should ask yourself if you are considering a volunteer vacation.
1. Why do you want to volunteer?
This is possibly the most important question so take some time to really think about it and reflect on whether voluntourism is the best way to achieve your goals.
2. Do you have the necessary language skills and cultural experience?
Can you speak the language of the country where you plan to volunteer? If not, have you thought about how you will communicate with the people you hope to work in partnership with? Do you know about the history and culture of the area? If not, are you willing to commit the time before you go to do your research?
3. Do you have the necessary skills and qualifications for the job?
What skills and qualifications do you have to offer that don’t already exist in the place where you plan to volunteer? Would you be allowed to volunteer in this field in your home country?
4. Who does the job you wish to volunteer for at the moment?
Will you be taking a local person’s job or diminishing their value by doing it for free? And what will happen when you leave?
5. Is this money well spent?
The majority of voluntourism trips involve paying a significant fee. Have you been provided with a breakdown of what your volunteer fee will be used for? Do you know how much of your fee will reach the country where you plan to volunteer? If your primary goal is to help a local project, would they benefit more from your time or from a donation?
The last question can be a challenging question to ask yourself and we recognise that the answer isn’t always black and white. The impact of a voluntourism experience often extends far beyond the actual time a volunteer spends at a project - and the relationships that can develop between volunteers and local people are often the most valuable part of voluntourism.
Most voluntourists gain far more than they can give during their short time as volunteers. However, many volunteers also form lasting relationships with their projects, which can result in long-term collaboration and partnership.
Have you volunteered abroad? We'd love to hear about your experience and any advice you might have for future volunteers - please share in the comments below.
We also recommend the following resources for more information on this topic: