You Don’t Have to Be a ‘Voluntourist’ to Travel With a Cause
You know the voluntourist — you've seen the Facebook poverty-porn profile pics featuring the fair-skinned traveler surrounded by smiling, brown-skinned children. You know the ones who come back from a week, a summer, a semester in [insert developing country], don headscarves or other indigenous trappings, and can't stop talking about their "life-changing" trip to help the poor people.
The satirical Instagram account Savior Barbie captures voluntourists at their worst: posing with African orphans, hair flowing in a Serengeti breeze, smug in their conviction that wealthy, often white, First Worlders are the only ones who can solve global poverty.
The hybrid of volunteering and tourism isn't just social media phenomenon; it's one of the fastest-growing sectors of the travel industry. A 2008 study surveying 300 organizations found that 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending $2 billion annually, according to the New York Times. And to no one's surprise, a full-on backlash has followed, with critics arguing that the $2 billion spent on airfare, lodging and food for volunteers could be put to much better, more sustainable use as donations to the communities these people come to serve.
But while voluntourists may be misguided, their intentions are (usually) sincere and commendable. These travelers — many of them young and genuinely amped up on ideals — want an authentic experience, to get to know another culture in a way that can't be accomplished just by hitting the top tourist attractions. They want to expand their worldview, sometimes literally changing their perspective on life itself. Like all clichés, there's truth at the core.
"If we can volunteer in an orphanage in Belize and go lie on the beach for a week, we get to feel doubly good about ourselves," Peace Corps volunteer Emily Wolfteich said in an email. "The problem is when we only consider ourselves and our good intentions. If we are uneducated about the culture and the problems of the place we want to volunteer, then we aren't actually contributing to the well-being of that community."
Know where you're going: While voluntourism can be a one-way ticket to becoming the proverbial Ugly American, there are ways to volunteer and travel that can make a real impact and benefit all parties in the transaction, from the recipients of the good work to the sponsoring organization to the volunteers themselves.
For starters, travelers need to do their research. Most volunteer trips that actually benefit the communities in developing countries they are working for have an established partnership with the communities they serve.
Dos Pueblos, a nonprofit that has been working in the Nicaraguan community Tipitapa for over 30 years, knows the needs of the people they're working with. Executive Director Lupe Ramsey coordinates with a Nicaraguan community organizer who lives in the community to evaluate and coordinate volunteer projects. Groups of volunteers from New York City's Upper West Side neighborhood visit Nicaragua to work on projects — such as building potable water wells or libraries — for about a week once or twice a year.
"We work with local organizers who really know the work and have really been doing my job for most of their lives," Ramsey said in a phone interview. The organizer "goes through an evaluation process. If she sees that there is real need, and also that the community is organized enough to participate in the project and keep it going. There has to be a level of ability."
In February, Dos Pueblos sent a group of about 30 young volunteers from the Upper West Side to build a library in Tipitapa. After they spent a week constructing the physical library, the community organizer on the ground found volunteers to staff the library and ensure the facility will be maintained. Ramsey says she is in "constant contact" with the community organizer to make sure the projects are working and to decide what to work on next.
"Participatory development": Many people get the idea to volunteer abroad in high school and college, where expensive international volunteer trips can be billed to parents as a way to open up their privileged children's minds while helping those less fortunate. Plenty of these groups/projects show up, construct some kind of school or other useful building and leave, without connecting with that community or truly understanding its needs.
In a recent viral essay, Pippa Biddle, a writer and board member for the travel nonprofit Onwards, describes a project in which she and other volunteers spent a week helping to build a library — only to discover how ineffective and counterproductive their work was: "[T]urns out that we, a group of highly educated boarding school students, were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure."
At the College of William and Mary, Sociology Professor David Aday leads two international service trips a year, in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, focused on public health issues. Students have to apply to be a part of each project and are required to take a year-long seminar while involved. He calls this "engaged scholarship," in which students learn about the community, do field work on a week-long trip each year and try to address problems through "participatory development" — or, as he describes it, a method "which seeks to find respectful ways to partner that promote individual and collective agency and community capacity."
Aday has been working on both projects for over 10 years, and students who work on the projects often stay involved through all four years of college. As a sociologist, Aday and his students started working in the communities by conducting ethnographic research, talking with community members and learning about the issues in the communities before starting work on any projects. One project is currently focused on finding solutions to reduce flooding damage; another is working to form a partnership with Engineers Without Borders to bring the community clean water.
"The potential view of voluntourism turns on the extent to which those involved have done any kind of critical examination of the proposed 'helping' effort, and the extent to which those involved know anything about the local community, its needs and its inequalities," Aday said in an email. "If the intervention is not done thoughtfully, the result may be to further advance the dependence of the community and its residents."
Flipping the script on volunteering: There's another way to really experience a travel destination without needing to volunteer at all. As more travelers search for "off-the-beaten-path experiences," Michal Alter, co-founder and CEO of Visit.org, saw an opportunity to connect tourists with such experiences and to help the communities they're visiting at the same time.
"My experience working for local nonprofit organizations has taught me that local organizations have a lot of assets that they [use to] do a much better job sharing with the world," Alter said during a conversation at her office. "They have a unique understanding of the local community, the history of the community culture and a unique trust relationship with the community."
Visit.org is an online platform where tourists can find travel experiences run by local nonprofits in communities around the world. They currently have over 200 projects in about 30 countries worldwide. From immigrant women teaching a baking class in New York's East Harlem neighborhood to Bedouin tribeswomen teaching tourists in Israel how to weave baskets, these activities connect travelers with experiences that can't be manufactured or replicated. Instead of coming in to provide a service when traveling, visitors learn something from the people who live in the place they are visiting.
"We want to flip that relationship and say, actually, local communities have tons of culture, history, expertise on this very issue that they've been working on for generations, and they have a lot to share."
"By flipping that relationship instead of constantly thinking that, when people come from the outside, they have the skills, they have the knowledge that they share with the locals who need it — that's basically some kind of perception that exists," Alter said. "We want to flip that relationship and say, actually, local communities have tons of culture, history, expertise on this very issue that they've been working on for generations, and they have a lot to share."
Alter and her co-workers go through a vetting process before agreeing to feature nonprofits on their platform in order to ensure that they are benefiting the community in some way. Nonprofits on the website receive their full tour price, and visit.org covers its overhead via a booking fee that the user pays. By changing the dynamics of the cultural and educational relationship, Alter believes tourists learn more — and do more good — than they would through a traditional volunteer experience.
"It's the public education aspect of what we're doing," she said. "Travelers that go through these powerful experiences become more intelligent about this specific topic when they go back home."
Ultimately, the best thing you can do to avoid becoming a voluntourist is to leave your ego at home (along with your savior complex and belief in American exceptionalism) and bring only your humility and a willingness to work hard.
"The most effective projects that volunteers can be involved with are those that have been started and supported by the community they're entering into, to which they bring specific skills or resources," the Peace Corp.'s Wolfteich said. "No matter where in the world, projects that stem from a need and a solution identified by the community are the ones that are most likely to stick around."