Voluntourism isn’t helping anyone

A voluntourism construction project

When I came to university I had no idea just how many gap year students there were – in fact, in halls everyone on my floor had taken one, and suddenly I was the odd one out. Of course, there could be any number of reasons why someone took a year or two out before university, but it has become somewhat of a tradition for people to volunteer abroad on their ‘gap yah’ in order to help people who are less well-off and to really ‘find themselves.’ Finding yourself and what you care about whilst helping others seems like a fantastic idea, except for the fact that voluntourism is becoming increasingly problematic.

Many travel abroad to build schools or homes for communities that need them, which is a perfectly good cause and something that we should definitely be involved in. But what qualifies you, an 18 year old boy or girl, fresh out of sixth form or college with no experience of building anything that wasn’t flat-packed from Ikea, to help build a school abroad? What are you contributing to the project apart from incredibly unskilled labour? Admittedly, your presence is boosting the local economy by making it into a tourist destination, but in the process you’re taking jobs away from local workers who would do a far better job. In some cases, the work by tourists has been so bad that local builders tear down the work done during the day at night and rebuild, all to keep up the illusion that you are helping. 

I wholeheartedly encourage those among us who are qualified to help abroad to go and do so, whether they be engineers, medical staff or teachers, but for the rest of us, it’s best to stay at home. Your time would be better spent raising money through bucket collections, bake sales, charity runs or signing up for schemes like Give As You Earn to give a little of your pay-check to charity every month. The only reason why you would choose to go abroad over helping in your local community when your current skill set is of no use to anyone, especially when you don’t even speak the local dialect, is for a bunch of pretty pictures to upload to Facebook whilst making yourself feel better about the gross inequalities in the world. Volunteering at a food bank is far less exciting than volunteering in India, and you almost certainly won’t get as many likes on your profile picture if it’s you with a homeless man over a picture of you in your ‘gap yah’ trousers somewhere out in Africa, but what does it say about us if this is all we really care about?

By placing more value on photo opportunities and having something to brag about for years to come over the genuine impact you’re having on communities, you’re perverting the purpose of charity. Charity should be about helping others, not making you feel good about yourself or giving you something interesting to talk about. There’s nothing wrong with travelling, embracing new cultures and learning about the world we live in, but by volunteering abroad in the knowledge that your efforts would be better spent elsewhere, you’re ultimately damaging the people you are trying to help.

I’m not saying that we should choose to help people at home before we help those abroad, or that some causes are more worthy than others, what I’m saying is that we need to be more effective in how we spend our time and money. An expensive trip abroad isn’t worth the hassle if the help we’re giving is basically useless, and the cost of flights and accommodation would be better off donated directly to charities. Choosing to volunteer in Nepal for a mere 17 days with YUSU this summer isn’t going to make a big enough difference to make the expense worth it, nor should we pretend it is. I think it’s time we start calling voluntourism by what it really is – a glorified holiday that isn’t helping anyone.

Bottom Line: The money spent travelling abroad would be better off donated directly to charity

10 thoughts on “Voluntourism isn’t helping anyone

  1. 100% agree. I took a few gap years myself but instead focused on vocational work to “find myself”, but mostly get some real experience of work (and also get some independence).

    When I decided to volunteer abroad for last summer it was a nightmare dealing with a (mostly) large group of completely incapable and unwilling people. It made me feel embarassed being there working with local people to build stuff in the community as I thought we were all that inept. It wasn’t so much the inexperience, I can look passed that, it was the sheer unwillingness to learn and put the effort in.

    I could rant for a long time but most people aren’t interested in hearing the sounds of my axe grinding but I urge anyone who is thinking about volunteering: do it, but go with the mindset of you working your arse off in the baking sun dealing with cramps, stiffness, sunburn, infection and potentially parasites and other goodness, not sunbathing and pampered locals.

  2. I was told to leave an outraged comment but I fully agree…

    I’m outraged by how much I agree! This isn’t the norm for me!

  3. Decent article. However, I would go many steps further to say that, for various reasons, giving to large charities is a waste of time, giving money to “developing” countries is a waste of time and as you’ve mentioned voluntourism is a waste of time, unless the ultimate goal is satisfying our egos.

    It’s fundamentally wrong to think that the modern westernised way of living is any better than traditional or foreign ways, but this is generally the objective of foreign aide.

  4. I broadly agree with this article, especially that 'we need to be more effective in how we spend our time and money'. But that actually means accepting that 'some causes are more worthy than others', because there is a really big range in the impact of different charities. Some charities achieve very little, or may even actively cause harm, whereas the very best charities may have an impact that is hundreds or even thousands of times greater than an average charity. Surely it's more worthy to support charities that have a higher impact? The effective altruism movement seeks to identify these best charities and make a significant contribution to them; many effective altruists give 10% of their income, whilst some give much more. The University of York has an effective altruism society (search for Effective Altruism York on facebook) and next week we'll be hosting a debate between advocates of two different high-impact charities, with money being allocated to them based on an audience vote.

  5. Michael raises a very good point. So much money donated to charities is wasted, and there can be a very fine line between voluntourism working for an international charity.

  6. I agree with much of what you say. I wonder if you’ve asked your housemates who’ve done ‘volunteerism’ gap years what they felt they got out of it, and if they thought the communities they were staying with got something useful out of it too. But young Westerners who stay for a year and help out by teaching probably do a lot of good, since local teachers may be under-skilled and will certainly be underpaid and overworked. The kids’ mental and cultural horizons will have been widened by having a foreigner in their midst, and that can lead to good things. But building wells and building houses is something the locals can do – much better, as you say.

    Paul Kerswill (Dept of Language and Linguistic Science)

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