Thinking about voluntourism

a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity

As you know, I recently visited Bali, attending a conference. Whilst there, I visited an organisation which runs a program training young women to work in the tourism industry. The organisation also conducts a number of practical and educational programs promoting ecological sustainability.

The programs and their goals are, in my opinion, entirely worthy and appear to be working well.

My beef is with the way I saw the programs being managed: by foreign volunteers  who were interning for weeks or months.

I was reminded of a ‘vacation’ recently taken by a relative. The vacation was organised by a well known charitable foundation and was focussed on building an ablutions block at a Cambodian school. The cost of the vacation included a four figure donation and my understanding is that voluntourism always includes a financial commitment as well as donation of labour. My question, as yet unanswered, is “wouldn’t a more sustainable outcome be to make the donation and use it to pay local builders” I can’t help but assume that builders would do a better job of the construction than would a group of Australian office workers.

Do you know what? I don’t think that would fly. I think that the volunteers’ goal is to donate their time and labour, even where they are unskilled. There is social kudos in the exchange “What did you do on holiday?””Oh, I helped build an ablutions block at a Cambodian school” You can see the halo shining, can’t you.

Let’s move our gaze from the voluntourist to a project, let’s say a Cambodian orphanage. Apparently donating your time at an orphanage has a great deal of cachet. Is our voluntourist a nurse? an anthropologist? have they relevant experience? No. But they are delighted to spend a few hours per day for a few days feeding babies and playing with young children. And, heaven knows, the orphanage looks as though it can do with all the help it can get. Sadly, this scenario rarely benefits the children who are confused by an endless procession of carers. Worse, they become fodder for tourists who visit the orphanages for photo opportunities. Further, I understand that orphans are so attractive that families are encouraged to surrender their children simply to build the orphanage stocks.

Am I actively discouraging you from doing great stuff while you’re on holiday? No, not at all. I am asking you, though, to do your homework, to consider the effects and ponder whether your time and money can be used differently for a sustainable outcome.

For a different view, please read Ken Budd’s post ‘Unpacking Voluntourism’

I decided not to post any photos from my trip. I hope you like Todd Lawson’s (source: Getty Images)

Humanitarian aid volunteer talking to villagers about malaria prevention.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s