The Folly of Voluntourism

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The chances are that if you took a gap year you will have volunteered somewhere abroad. It’s charitable, an incredible experience, and has the added bonus of glowing that wonderfully cliché ‘it looks great on your CV’ – which is exactly why it could be becoming an issue. Is voluntourism an easy way for young philanthropists to help across the world, or is it a guise for the typically better-off student to say ‘been there, done that’?

I’m not discounting the credibility of the experience, because voluntourism will always be an amazing way to help charities out. Increasingly, though, gap year and student companies will miraculously appear with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities of building schools in Africa or helping orphans in Thailand. Particularly when it comes to helping children, it seems difficult to imagine that a constant influx of young adults from the UK is not disruptive to their wellbeing in some way.

I am fully aware, of course, that my words hold little weight, as someone who has neither been involved with voluntourism nor has the intention of being so. However, I do remain a target for voluntourism marketing, and because of this it is difficult to see past the concept as much more than profit. Nearly every time I scroll down my Facebook newsfeed I see an advert along the lines of ‘have an unforgettable experience and volunteer’ or ‘change lives this summer’. Changing the topic slightly, when you give a present to someone, particularly if it’s thoughtful it’s hard not to feel smug about making someone else happy. Applying this to voluntourism, and to phrase much more cynically: do people volunteer abroad for the benefit of helping others, or for the benefit of self-satisfaction of saying that they have done so?

You can easily say ‘so what’ and it’s true: so what if you volunteer just to say you have? No one truthfully knows why you’ve been volunteering, and it really does make your CV present you as a more well-rounded character. This is only a minor part of the problem though, if a problem at all. How do we know that paying £1500+ for two weeks across the world is going somewhere useful? How can we know that teaching children is making a real difference, if you in all earnest want to make a change?

The first and most obvious answer to all of this is do your research. It matters so much which company or charity you work with; in fact, the difference between those two c-words should be your first port-of-call. There are charities out there that genuinely help the communities they reach and rightly focus on aid rather than profit. Unfortunately the accessibility of international travel has lead to plenty of gap year companies jumping on this trend of charity, using media such as the aforementioned Facebook to keep their opportunities in our train of thought. I will always champion travelling the world because it Gives you much more of an insight into different cultures; however, the idea of voluntourism seems to have created this concept that it is near enough compulsory to help someone, or something, in need between your time in Asia and those two months in South America. The brilliant thing is, you can still travel selfishly. Providing it’s responsible – particularly environmentally – to book a round-the-world trip purely for the sake of your own experience satisfaction is wonderful, especially if you can admit it.

Oddly enough there seems to be a certain pressure to save the world through charity now, our youth and timing in this planet’s journey producing us, the generation of do-gooders. There are so many people who will spend their lives working with charities, and I have so much respect for those that will. However, I will be the first to admit that whilst I will always happily donate my money and do my research, volunteering under the illusion of tourism is something I would struggle to participate in. More than anything, it is the sheer length of time required to make a ‘real’ difference that bothers me. It isn’t 60 Minute Makeover.

Who knows, maybe I am completely wrong about this, though a recent article from The Independent suggests not (entitled ‘Voluntourism is a “waste of time and money”‘ – and gappers are better off working in Britain’, (October 2014). I am so thankful for my background and I can’t speak for anyone affected by the benefits and potential negatives of voluntourism. However, as I mentioned before, in many ways I am one of the young adults who does go out to places in need. I am part of what seems to be this generation of promise and superheroes. This does not mean stop volunteering abroad, because change only ever happens bit by bit. Instead it means do your research. Help in earnest, not for self-gain. And for goodness’ sake, when you travel, don’t feel any obligation to volunteer because you ‘should’. It seems to me that in the case of voluntourism, not taking part is potentially the best participation you can give.

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