The voluntourism industry is making big bucks. Every year, millions of volunteer tourists travel globally, spending over 2 billion dollars to volunteer their time.
Our concern is this: at what point does well-intentioned volunteerism become reckless humanitarian douchery?
Humanitarian douchery is an umbrella term we’ve created to cover all kinds of irresponsible voluntourism. Whether it’s volunteering for the wrong reasons, doing the wrong kind of work, or having a problematic mindset, we want it to end. The spectrum of humanitarian douchery is expansive and includes…
- Framing oneself as a ‘hero’ who is ‘saving’ people in developing countries
- Imposing one’s values on host communities and neglecting their needs
- Doing volunteer work that one is not qualified for or trained to do
- And the list goes on and on…
The worst part is, these behaviours often occur unintentionally. For a lot of young people, spending thousands of dollars to volunteer for two weeks has become such a norm that it’s just widely accepted. Few people stop to think about the potential downfalls of jetting off to a developing country.
And you might still be wondering: what is the problem?
On the surface, voluntourism seems like a win-win situation: the volunteer gets to travel, take cute photos and enrich their lives with a sweet learning experience, while host communities get some much needed help. It sounds amazing in theory, but here’s why we should be more skeptical about it:
Not all booking agencies or volunteer organizations are legit.
Unfortunately, many organizations lack financial transparency and do not work very closely with local communities (even if they say that they do). Often volunteers will dive into trips without thoroughly researching their organizations or even where their money goes, which can 1) support unethical companies and 2) fuel appalling industries like orphanage tourism in Cambodia.
Volunteer work can disrupt local economies and foster dependency.
One of the most common critiques of voluntourism is that when volunteers come in and out of communities on short-term trips, they risk disrupting local economies. For example, volunteers could be doing work that would otherwise be done by locals, or even completing unsatisfactory work that they’re unqualified to do. As with many forms of international aid, voluntourism can lead to the creation of dependency, where host communities become reliant on volunteer funds (thus preventing them from becoming self-sufficient).
Work might aim to benefit volunteers more than local communities.
A quick scan of voluntourism websites will make it clear that emphasis is often placed on self-fulfillment, helping to make a difference, gaining valuable experience, etc. In many situations, the needs of the host communities become secondary to what the volunteers want. This can lead to volunteers doing work that is mismatched to the host community (and even potentially harmful), just to make themselves feel good.
Engaging in voluntourism can perpetuate stereotypes, images of difference and unequal power relationships.
Volunteers often enter placements with a problematic mindset that they are there to “save” children or “fix” communities. Even if volunteer intentions are good, this type of thinking can solidify an unequal power relationship that orients volunteers as benevolent givers and host communities as needy receivers. If this mindset is adopted, we continue to view those in developing countries as “the other”and sustain the unequal power relations responsible for many of the problems that volunteers are trying to solve.
Volunteers are often not properly trained or qualified.
With many volunteer placements, prior experience is not necessary, and training is minimal. What ends up happening is volunteers with no construction experience build schools and volunteers with no medical experience help with surgeries. If they could never do these things in their home countries, why is it okay to “go practice” elsewhere? Volunteers doing work they’re not qualified for can have very harmful consequences.
Voluntourism turns aid and social change into a commodity.
Voluntourism is a highly profit-driven industry. The problem with commodifying aid like this is that it offers up social change as something that can be purchased like any other product. If volunteers do not understand or critically assess what their role is, they might be made to believe that paying thousands of dollars for a trip is enough to save the world, which offers up a very naive perspective on global issues. The point is: social justice and equality are not things that can simply be bought, and it is crucial that volunteers understand this before they commit to a trip.