Over the past decade or so, more and more citizens of developed nations have opted out of standard vacations full of relaxing on the beach and visiting small businesses and chosen instead to use their travels abroad to “give back” to a community in need. Coined “Voluntourism,” the practice is as common as it is controversial. Churches, fraternal organizations, and various special interest groups will take small cohorts of eager volunteers all over the planet to accomplish tasks like constructing a building, teaching children at an orphanage, or running the day-to-day operations of a health clinic. Economists and researchers have pointed that, while well-intentioned, some of these programs aren’t as effective as they promise to be. If you’re considering going on a voluntourism tour, here are some important aspects to consider:
Pro: You’ll get a first-hand experience of how the vast majority of the world lives. If you’ve grown up in a Western nation, specifically the US, UK, or a member of the EU, you’re among the richest people on the planet — upwards of half of all earthlings live on under the equivalent of $1 per day. Most citizens of developed nations literally cannot fathom how that’s even possible, but the fact of the matter is that more people live like that than live like Americans. Sometimes, seeing is believing.
Con: You get to go back home afterward. Perhaps the biggest criticism of voluntourism is that it treats poverty like a museum exhibit, not the global crisis killing thousands of men, women, and children daily. Critics of voluntourism have noted that the organizations make money by running trips to impoverished nations, and that money doesn’t necessarily make it to the people who need it most.
Pro: You get to make a tangible difference. People returning from trips of this nature often report that they felt they could put their privilege to good use by giving back to those who need the most help. Whether they were working on construction or simply caring for babies who don’t get the nurturing care they need at their underfunded and overcrowded daycare, people return from these trips with a sense of accomplishment and a fire to do more work in the field of alleviating poverty.
Con: The effect of your work is short-lived. Unless you’re a highly skilled person like a doctor or an engineer, you may not have the skills necessary to be doing the kind of high-quality work that the community needs done. Furthermore, especially with child care, you may wind up doing some long-term damage. Even if you and a child bond deeply while you’re visiting, that bond is likely gone forever once you return home, leaving a child with trust issues and separation anxiety.
All in all, it’s important to evaluate why you’re going on your trip and what skills you bring to the area.