Recently I came across an article which outlined some of the dangers of voluntourism. Voluntourism is an emerging tourist trend in which tourists travel to another part of the world to participate in a project with some societal benefit e.g. helping in an orphanage or participating in a building project. Our planned trip to Mexico is a classic example of voluntourism – we take a group of Australians to Mexico to build a house for a poor family. In this article the author, Richard Stupart highlights some of the dangers and pitfalls of voluntourism and cautions potential travellers from participating in this type of tourist trend.
After reading the article, there was indeed much with which I could agree. Stupart raises many legitimate and important questions, such as the long term developmental goals and financial transparency of the local partner organisation.
But as I finished reading the article, I felt that Stupart wasn’t entirely fair to voluntourism. As one who has participated in a voluntourism project (and is promoting another trip soon) I fear that Stupart was a little reductionistic and overly negative towards voluntourism (my comments focus on the building projects and not so much on the orphanages).
I have a couple of reflections.
1. This article minimises the impact these projects can have on volunteers as they are exposed to poverty and different cultures.
These projects expose volunteers to poverty in a way which I'm not sure any other project can. The projects will change the participants not only personally (I’ve never used a nail gun before) but also emotionally, relationally and even spiritually.
We are exposed to poverty in a real and enduring way. We meet the person we help, which helps personify poverty. We gain empathy for those living in poverty, we see their living conditions first hand, we begin to appreciate what living in poverty is really like – the colours, sounds, and smells.
Experiencing making a difference hands on is a crucial reason for the emergence of voluntourism. Stupart acknowledges but underplays this. People do want to make a positive difference to the world and they want to quantify that difference. We want go beyond the drudgery of our everyday lives and make a positive contribution somewhere. We want to see the difference with our own hands.Stupart underplays or at worst, dismisses these motivations, which I think is unhelpful. One of the main reasons he does this leads me to the second point..
2. This article often reduces the ‘value’ of volunteering to simple economic efficiency, where the reality is more complex.
“Voluntourism wouldn’t exist as an industry if travelers were happy to efficiently donate money for local organisations to do the work themselves.”
This is true, but also false at the same time. As outlined in the previous point, there are a variety of different motivations for people wanting to participate in these projects, which Stupart underplays. Economic efficiency is one way of framing this question, and if this is the sole determinant, then voluntourism is ‘inefficient’. However this may not be the best or only way of framing the decision. Rather than reducing the decision to economic efficiency, another way is; ‘how can I use my holidays to do something useful and meaningful for the poor?’
Would Stupart be content with someone spending thousands of dollars on an expensive overseas holiday at the snow or the beach and living the completely self-absorbed life, whilst donating a few hundred dollars to an NGO to build a house for a poor family? I’m not sure, but according to his analysis, this may be the more economically ‘efficient’ outcome.
Further, there are other economic benefits Stupart fails to acknowledge. Building materials are sourced locally (creating jobs), the volunteers require accommodation and food and spend money creating more jobs. Voluntourism creates many jobs and opportunities well beyond the money spent on the particular building project.
I can agree with one of his conclusions…
“If you are taking the trouble to go out of your comfort zone to make life better for others, the least you can do is your homework, and to be aware of the complexity of the questions you need to ask.”
To this I completely agree. And I would suggest that our trip to Mexico does provide a meaningful travel experience which does something of long term value to those in the community of Tijuana. Yet also crucially, this project does something of enduring and positive value to those who participate in the project. For more information on our upcoming Mexico trip, click here.