Voluntourism: Destroying Development With Good Intentions

“Do you speak English?” I asked the new volunteer at Colibri, an afternoon program for youth in Cusco, Peru. The common response is yes, but this is the seventh volunteer I have introduced myself to in the three months I have been in Peru. I have met people from Denmark, England, Germany, the United States, and Belgium. We all have different backgrounds but have come to Cusco in order to perform a sort of service; I even had the opportunity to meet a monk. As I have watched various individuals come and go from an organization I know and love, it made me start to consider the effects of voluntourism and my own possible contribution. Voluntourism is occurring all around the world and is negatively impacting populations due to people with good intentions. It is not uncommon for individuals to spend vacations, semesters, or years traveling the world doing various volunteer projects. However, with good intentions, these individuals can significantly impact the population that the volunteers are trying to help. Projects such as school building, temporary medical clinics, or volunteering at an orphanage have left the population in a worse state than before the volunteers arrived. The volunteers can take the jobs of the locals, in an inefficient way,  build schools that sit empty, or create a demand for orphans.

Voluntourism continues today as a business based on the good intentions of individuals going abroad. For instance, throughout South and Central America, organizations come to build schools. In a perfect world where the school would be built, properly staffed, and run in an uncorrupt manner for decades to come it would be great, but this is far from the reality. The volunteers that come from developed countries are taking the jobs of workers in their native country, and it is common for the volunteers to be less skilled than the unemployed workers whose jobs they are taking. Once the school is built the future is not more optimistic than before, as often time the schools will not experience correct staffing and can even sit empty. Beyond this, the issues that arise in orphanages across the world are depressing. The volunteers that come to work in the orphanages have caused a higher demand for orphans. Before the influx of voluntourism, the children that were at the orphanages were all orphans without parents or with parents that could not support them. As voluntourism has become more popular, the volunteering occurring at the orphanages has developed a demand for more orphans at the facility, which results in children that have parents beginning to be sent to orphanages to satisfy these demands. Moreover, the children that are a part of these programs have chains of new strangers coming through to help them; volunteers will only stay for a few weeks, then they leave and are replaced with someone new. This causes the children to develop attachment problems due to the constant change in authority.

The volunteering is not boosting the economy of the community and is actually taking away from it. When the volunteers come, they buy from the people selling crafts on the street and leave behind items, such as T-shirts or water bottles. These actions may seem relatively harmless, but these actions have significant impacts on the economy and social well-being of the community the volunteers are trying to help. Buying from a woman on the street may keep her there and leaving behind things lowers the demand for other local markets. In discussions of societal improvement, economics has a significant impact, and the actions of volunteers across the globe are negatively impacting the people of the communities that they are trying to help.

In a society that is beginning to value travel over possessions voluntourism is becoming more popular, encouraging these negative effects. There are solutions. Alternatives include donating to an organization that has local individuals stationed in the areas that are in need. Local individuals better understand the local culture and how their actions are impacting the people of the community. While donation removes the element of volunteering, the people of the developing country will have a better life without the direct contact of the volunteer. Also, there are programs that are classified as Service-Learning and have a different approach to volunteerism. Service-Learning projects provide educational opportunities for their participants in an attempt to destroy the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ complex. In the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ complex there is superiority related to the ‘us,’ while the people included in the ‘them’ need to be taught the ‘proper’ ways of the ‘us.’ Through Service-Learning projects, individuals learn to appreciate the cultural difference and respect the differences that make the world beautiful and diverse. By better understanding the cultural differences, individuals can better help those in need. These programs also provide education about the effects of voluntourism and how to combat the negative effects.

My experience at my volunteer program, Colibri, will come to a close here in a month. Myself and one other member are the only volunteers that have volunteered for more than three weeks. I continue to participate in my service, but remember the effects my presence can have on the children of Cusco. Since living in Peru, I have grown a strong attachment to their beautiful culture and history, looking only to help those I have come to love. As I continue my Service-Learning project I continually learn the effects that individuals like me have on communities and their culture. It is a  fine line to walk between a participating in Service-Learning and voluntourism. To avoid the negative effects of voluntourism one must research the program that you want to participate in. Ensuring that they provide a Service-Learning aspect will allow education about the community. Most importantly remember, do what is best for the community you want to serve based on your research because ultimately the most important part is to help the people of the community that is in need.