Volunteer tourism doesn't work

While it might seem like a way for people to spend money and do some good, it seldom results in meaningful change

Published August 23, 2013 12:22PM (EDT)

Cambodian orphans study English in a classroom at an orphanage on the outskirts of Phnom Penh Cambodia.    (AP/Andy Eames)
Cambodian orphans study English in a classroom at an orphanage on the outskirts of Phnom Penh Cambodia. (AP/Andy Eames)

This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific Standard Over the last 20 years, an increasing number of people have begun spending their money on the opportunity to do volunteer work in another country. Money spent in order to work for free in order to help someone or something in another country is also known as “volunteer tourism.” Some say it’s a practice of poverty alleviation, a moral duty, and a personally transformative experience, while others say it’s doing more harm than good.

Like everything, volunteer tourism is becoming increasingly industrialized, which is one of the main arguments against it. Friends-International, an organization which campaigns against “orphanage tourism” (an offshoot of volunteer tourism) in Cambodia, considers the finances behind the industry to be detrimental to the populations volunteers are hoping to serve. On their website they write that “unscrupulous business operators” who bring in tourists to help for a day then donate to the orphanage may “purposefully maintain poor living conditions for children to secure funds from tourists.”

ATLAS reports that the value of the volunteer tourism market is around $2 billion and the average cost for volunteers, in 2007, was $3,000 per trip. That money, the thought is, would be better used if just donated directly. In his paper “‘Making a Difference’: Volunteer Tourism and Development,” Jim Butcher, who is a proponent of volunteer tourism, admits that fees paid to participate in volunteer projects could be more beneficial as wages to locals, who could contribute “a greater amount of labor than the individual volunteer could ever hope to provide.” The other issue is that so many of these volunteers don’t really know what they’re doing. The trips often serve as experiences that help them get jobs at home, but their inexperience undermines the initiatives they’re working on while abroad.

Others, like Dr. Mary Mostafanezhad of the University of Otago, consider volunteer tourism to be, at best, an oversimplification of international development and, at worst, a perpetuation of colonialist behavior. (“Superior nations” have a moral responsibility to fix “lesser nations.”) During 16 months of ethnographic research, Mostafanezhad interviewed numerous volunteers about their experience working in Thailand and found that poverty was consistently described as a symptom of authenticity. “A result of this association is the depoliticization of poverty,” Mostafanezhad writes, “where questions of why or how people became ‘p00r’ are overshadowed by the aesthetic pleasure of the experience.”

Still, because volunteering does stem from a desire to do some good, critics of it acknowledge that it doesn’t need to be destroyed, but rather refocused. Perhaps volunteer tourism, as it is now, should be reserved for conservation efforts only. Donald Brightsmith a research assistant professor at Texas A&M, writes that the relationship between these three parties is a positive one: Volunteer tourists bring in funding for conservation research that is “chronically lacking,” researchers are able to complete their work, and volunteers receive the skill set that will help them become “young biologists, foresters, and veterinarians.”

Fixing the volunteer projects aimed at humans is a little more complicated. Friends-International thinks the best way for tourists to help “vulnerable” communities is to support vocational training and community-based initiatives. Kevin Lyons, associate professor at the University of Newcastle, believes organizations need better management and oversight to avoid cross-cultural misunderstandings and reinforcements of stereotypes. Eliza Raymond, who works in the industry and published her analysis of it in the Journal of Sustainable Tourismsays that organizations need to match volunteers to projects according to their existing skill set and require that they are integrated with their host communities.

Positive intentions are there, but a change in the volunteer tourism model is necessary. As Lyons writes, “The giving might relieve the guilt that comes with privilege but does little to change the status quo.”

By Sarah Sloat

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Cambodia Pacific Standard Sustainable Tourism Texas A&m Volunteer Tourism