You may think, “all publicity is good publicity” translates to volunteer opportunities as well. Unfortunately this is not the case and voluntourism is something that one must actively avoid when looking at opportunities. “Voluntourism” is a combination of the words volunteer and tourism, meaning the people participating in the volunteer activity are tourists and not residents of a given area. Since the people are not typically versed in the issues facing the people of an area these activities often do more harm than good. Voluntourism often is synonymous with child and community exploitation and does not consider the needs of an area, rather it offers people a feel good opportunity to feel less like they are taking advantage of an area and like they are helping the residents.
A great example of the harmfulness of voluntourism is Haitian Orphanages. People often come to help the children and offer their time to a good cause, however the children never actually receive the help they need and the money offered to the orphanages by the tourists does not benefit them. People post photos online of what they believe is a great opportunity which convinces others to participate in the voluntourism continuing the vicious cycle.
“[T]he children never actually receive the help they need and the money offered to the orphanages by the tourists does not benefit them.”
Now you may think “so all volunteering is bad?”, luckily this isn’t true either. There are a lot of options to make sure the volunteer opportunity you’re looking into isn’t voluntourism. First things first, do your research, not only on the organization presenting the opportunity, but also on the region and residents of the area. Look at what the people of the area are asking for help with and improve your own cultural competency skills. The goal is to improve the community as the community sees fit, avoiding gentrification and genuinely helping people in the way they desire, not the way determined by an unassociated group. At the end of the day, volunteering is meant to serve the community and the people within it, not to make tourists feel better about their trips. Volunteering should be fun and beneficial for all involved, so keep your eyes peeled when you are looking for your next volunteer opportunity.
Written By Rachel Anderson, Associate Director of Education and Programming