Voluntourism: The Perks and The Problems

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Travel writers Arthur Russel and Nandra Galang Anissa discuss whether combining travel and volunteering does more hard than good.

The Perks

‘Volunteer Tourism’ appears a win – win situation.  It can single handedly transform a CV, whilst at the same time allowing the people involved an insight into the world of ‘the other’ by combining the two worlds of travel and volunteering. My reasons for spending six months volunteering abroad were simply what I could do for Africa (albeit a very small contribution) and what Africa could do for me.

Volunteering during the week and teaching kids basic science was never a selfless act – but that by no means should that lessen the integrity of such a venture. It served to benefit me as much as it could help the children I was working with. Trying to control 30 screaming kids in a small classroom actually fuelled my confidence levels; I had no option but to develop a loud, clear and commanding voice (I didn’t fancy using the cane), something I now realise as a very useful asset to many potential careers involving troublesome crowds. What’s more, the sense of satisfaction you can get from seeing the people you work with develop before your eyes, just like the unique sensation of travelling in a place where you are clearly an outsider to it’s way of life, is something you can only truly appreciate through direct experience.

As for the children, I feel that volunteers can provide a much needed breath of fresh air into their limited schooling experience of the third world child. Walking into a supposed lesson was often shocking. In these cases all I would see was the kids playing or chatting whilst the teacher was slumped snoozing in their chair, feet on the desk, possibly addressing the hangover from the night before – either that or they just simply didn’t fancy teaching today. Volunteers will be surprised how far their basic schooling knowledge in let’s say GCSE science will go. I sensed that giving a more disciplined but interactive lesson, on the whole actually sprouted more engagement from the children with the topic.

The importance of cultural exchange is embodied by how these young kid’s interaction with different learning styles can be a catalyst for them realising the importance a good education can bring, at whatever level. I could even be as brave to suggest that my western styles of ‘proper’ teaching could rub off onto the fellow teachers for years to come (e.g.  providing positive encouragement as opposed to treatment from the cane if they gave a ‘wrong’ answer, which not surprisingly seemed to scar children into even attempting a future answer). The passing on of such cultural tools could be reinforced over and over again through the increasing numbers of volunteers placing themselves in such settings.

It was a shock to discover African’s would do everyday things just as I did, from watching champions league matches at the pub to taking pride in their appearance, wearing a shirt and jeans. By mixing travel and volunteering I was able not only to contribute just a little to the community I was living in but I was also able to gain a great insight into a very different, and often misrepresented, culture.

Arthur Russel


The Problems

Volunteer travel could be very eye opening indeed, as it presents us with a different reality and could help us understand the gap between the rich and poor evident in several developing countries. While the idea of voluntourism is, to an extent, brilliant we must not turn a blind eye into the potential problems of this phenomenon.

What bothers me most about voluntourism is the fact that a lot of the programmes are run by for-profit organisations who are not exactly transparent about their finances. Having a quick look into commercial voluntourism operators I found out that most one-month projects cost at least £1,500, excluding flights. For a big sum of money it begs to question how much of those will go to the community? How can we make sure that the money goes to those who need it most?

My scepticism towards voluntourism grew after watching a documentary on the exploitation of Cambodia’s orphanages through voluntourism. The documentary investigates the way voluntourism is run in Cambodia, and found the situation to be very concerning. One of the main concerns addressed is the lack of investigation into the orphanages, schools or organisations volunteers will be working with. According to the documentary the condition of the orphanage was appalling dispite the fact that it had received numerous volunteers – so where has the money paid by these volunteers gone?

What’s even worse is that the volunteering activity itself goes unsupervised and volunteers did not undergo any prior training or briefings. I personally think that volunteering is not merely feeding the starved or playing with children, it requires dedication and it is very challenging. Furthermore, for volunteering programmes involving teaching, I think it is very important that volunteers should be picked based on experience or at least be given training and work under supervision of an expert. From what I see it as though this is not the case on many voluntourism programmes, probably because these commercial companies are geared towards maximising profit – hence losing sight of these important things.

In a way, volunteering should be open to everyone, even to those without experience. Volunteering could actually be a really great stepping stone into our future career. But without supervision, how would you know that you’ve made progress? How would you be able to evaluate your impact towards your students?

Now, I am not 100% against voluntourism, it’s just that we should be more aware when choosing volunteer travel programmes, especially from commercial voluntourism companies. I personally would suggest that if you do want to volunteer abroad, do it through non-profit organisations instead of voluntourism operators.

Nandra Galang Anissa


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