Thanks to everyone who chimed in on our discussion, started last Sunday, on “voluntourism” and international volunteering. The post generated some passionate and lengthy feedback, so I want to revisit the topic, both to round-up what’s been said as well as to allow myself a few more thoughts.
First, a few organizations that entered the discussion and that international job seekers might be interested in checking out:
- VSO: “the world’s leading independent international development organisation that works through volunteers to fight poverty in developing countries;” based in London
- Cross-Cultural Solutions: “specializes in short-term volunteer abroad programs in 12 countries;” based in New Rochelle, NY
- GlobeAware: develops short-term volunteer programs in international environments that encourage people to immerse themselves in a unique way of giving back;” based in Dallas, TX
Now, to the meat. My goal in starting a dialogue with Alanna RE: voluntourism was, quite simply, to find out more about it. I wanted to learn why an experienced development practitioner (Alanna) viewed voluntourism so negatively. And based on her view of the concept, I also wanted to revisit my initial opinion (I wrote many months back: “Voluntourism strikes me as not only a way to give back but also a means to gain short-term experience working abroad”) and determine if I was perhaps off the mark.
The first aspect of my post that some readers took issue with was nomenclature: “voluntourism” vs. “volunteering.” A few mentioned that voluntourism is in fact not volunteering at all—commenter Steve Jackson suggested they shouldn’t even be “mentioned in the same breath.” I’m respectful of Steve’s opinion, as well as his position as a skilled VSO volunteer, though I’m doubtful of this assertion. I wasn’t purposefully trying to conflate the two terms, or to use them interchangeably. But I did view, and still do, voluntourism as a form of volunteering, which for better or for worse I think many people would consider it to be (the original SF Chronicle article that spawned my first post on voluntourism defines voluntourism as a way in which one might volunteer, not as a wholly separate concept).
Those who stridently oppose voluntourism as wholly unbeneficial and with none of the redeeming qualities we typically associate with volunteer work are welcome to do so, though I’m unwilling to join them in this assessment, largely because I’m reluctant to judge the intentions and benefits of a large group of people and programs that are not all the same. I guess I’d just rather discuss than assume.
All of which leads to the second issue that arose as a result of my post: what does it mean to pay for a volunteer experience abroad? Or, what do we really mean when we say “voluntourism”?
I get the feeling that some who oppose the notion of voluntourism have a very specific image of who the typical voluntourist is: a rich voyeur who wishes to gawk at the wretched poor and then brag to his friends about his unending altruism, but has no real interest in the people or the cause he is allegedly serving. In essence, a “poverty tourist.”
While this type of person most likely exists, is this the only kind of voluntourist? Or, if a voluntourist is indeed someone who only wishes to gawk and brag, not to help, is every person then who pays for a volunteer experience abroad a voluntourist? I don’t think so, and point to commenter Darin Lim Yankowitz’s experience as an example. Darin details his own “voluntourist” experience, and it hardly seems like poverty tourism. Rather, as Darren tells it, his paid volunteer experience not only benefited those he wished to serve without displacing local workers or otherwise hurting the local community, but also had such a profound effect on him that he wishes to continue such work by pursuing a career in development. This strikes me as an all around good situation.
In addition, it suggests that just because a participant is paying to take part in a volunteer experience does not automatically make what they are doing unbeneficial or make them an unskilled poverty tourist. While some who pay for a volunteer experience may have less than pure motives and be looking only to buy an “authentic” experience, others (like Darin) do not fall into this category. Commenter Raj Gyawali seconds this notion: “How you conduct volunteering / voluntourism makes the difference, not who paid what.”
All of this also suggests that the term “voluntourism” is a loaded one and might be worth avoiding altogether—perhaps the better way to hold the discussion is by comparing “supported” vs. “unsupported” volunteer programs (supported=organization pays; unsupported=you pay). That might relieve the debate of the images, assumptions, and judgments that are attached to “voluntourism.” [I suppose an argument could even be made that those who pay for a volunteer experience and have impure motives and hurt more than help should be termed “voluntourists,” while those who pay for a volunteer experience and have pure motives and help more than hurt should be called “unsupported volunteers.” But judging someone’s motives and whether they are “helping” is so fraught with assumption that I’d prefer not to go there.]
Commenters Matt Kolterman and Brandolon Barnett also raised another issue to debate: what do we mean when we talk about the “effectiveness” of international volunteer programs? As Matt writes, “International development is not simply about results that can be measured, nor is it about skills that can be transferred. Though the work itself is undoubtedly a vital part of an assignment, a large part of the good a volunteer can do is facilitating cultural exchange and promoting a sense of mutual understanding, both on-assignment and back at home.” Brandolon seconds this, noting that volunteer experiences abroad create more globally engaged citizens: “International volunteers maintain higher levels of civic engagement in their home countries and towards their host countries even after returning home.” [As someone who promotes the value of international exchange programs in his daily work, I agree and think Matt and Brandolon make an important point. An example from my life: my brother has done several short-term volunteer gigs in Ghana. His work there mainly involved leading grant-writing courses. Was he successful? From a “results” standpoint, it’s debatable: he admits his students are not necessarily better grant writers than before (though in some cases they are). But the fact that he now has a group of Ghanaian friends with whom he keeps in regular contact, and that he now better understands and has a deep affection for Ghana (and the same is true of Ghanaian friends and their view of the U.S.) tells me that the cultural exchange aspect of his experience was a great success.]
In the end, I think my initial judgment of voluntourism (“not only a way to give back but also a means to gain short-term experience working abroad”) was too simplistic—I’m not saying I was right or wrong, only that the topic is too complex for definitive answers. This is also why I have been uncomfortable throughout with the pronouncements of “If you are paying, how much good can you be doing?”—because that is also too simplistic. It might be true, but it’s not necessarily true. It’s never as simple as we’d like it to be.
Alanna’s opinions from the initial post are still very important for anyone pursuing an international (development) career to think about. Consider your potential international volunteer options wisely: research the organization, find out the details of the project, how long you will be there, who you will be serving, and how you will be serving them. Think deeply about any potential volunteer experience (whether supported or unsupported) and consider the impact you will have on the project and local community. It’s important to know, as Alanna pointed out, that some international development agencies, whether you agree with it or not, might not look highly upon an unsupported (or voluntouristic) experience on your resume. It’s important to consider the possibility that just because you want to do good doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing good. All of this can’t be boiled down into a set of tidy recommendations, of easy dos and don’ts; rather, they are points that should be considered in the context of your individual and specific situation. Don’t discount a program simply because it’s asking you to pay; in the same way, don’t assume the best about a program simply because it will support you. Reserve judgment of any volunteer program and its efficacy until all the facts are known.