The Dangers of Voluntourism

The two main reasons people travel are for work or for pleasure, yet there are times those two intentions overlap. Having the opportunity to enjoy tourist activities when traveling for a work assignment is a blessing, but there are times in which this convergence of purposes actually creates harm in international communities, specifically when it involves volunteer work in developing countries.

Short-term volunteer opportunities can result in leaving a community dependent on outside resources, financial aid, and workers while simultaneously disempowering the members of the community in need. By bringing in outside volunteers, there’s the implication that the people within the community do not have the potential to succeed and grow independently. This can become even more problematic when people use volunteering primarily as an opportunity to see how impoverished communities live. This mentality of many international volunteers actually prevents those in poverty from becoming independent and self-sufficient in the long run. It reinforces a hierarchy that teaches developing countries that they must rely on the generosity or work of other people to live happy and meaningful lives.

The analysis of harm done on impoverished communities by international volunteers has been going on for decades. Austrian philosopher and and Roman Catholic priest, Ivan Illich, made a speech to the Conference on Inter-American Student Projects (CIASP) on the importance of not volunteering in Mexico in 1968. His argument states that American “do-gooders” actually do far more harm than good within marginalized communities due to the fact that volunteer work often evolves into invasion that creates disorder. For example, most international volunteers cannot speak the language, nor do they share the same formational experiences of the communities they are working with that would necessitate a mutual gain, therefore there is “no common ground whatsoever for [them] to meet on”. Illich encourages people to travel to Mexico to study, travel, or enjoy the views, but he warns that people should not go in order to help.

Now Illich’s perspective is controversial and widely debated among those in the nonprofit sector, economists, and ethicists, but he does raise an important question about intention versus impact. Even those with the most well-to-do intentions can reinforce harmful stereotypes, assumptions, and biases about communities in poverty. In fact, a New York Times journalist, Jacob Kushner wrote about his experience as a reporter in Haiti:

“Collectively they [volunteers] had spent thousands of dollars to fly here to do a job that Haitian bricklayers could have done far more quickly. Imagine how many classrooms might have been built if they had donated that money rather than spending it to fly down themselves. Perhaps those Haitian masons could have found weeks of employment with a decent wage. Instead, at least for several days, they were out of a job.”

In addition, Kushner reflected on the complexity of eradicating global poverty and how even experts in the field can get it horribly wrong: “Research in South Africa and elsewhere has found that ‘orphan tourism’ — in which visitors volunteer as caregivers for children whose parents died or otherwise can’t support them — has become so popular that some orphanages operate more like opportunistic businesses than charities, intentionally subjecting children to poor conditions in order to entice unsuspecting volunteers to donate more money. Many “orphans,” it turns out, have living parents who, with a little support, could probably do a better job of raising their children than some volunteer can. And the constant arrivals and departures of volunteers have been linked to attachment disorders in children.”

These examples and perspectives have been strongly considered in the creation and evolution of EKARI Foundation. Executive Director, Michelle Bradley, has lead our organization to focus solely on how our programs and initiatives can function to center the needs of our Malawian friends, as well as empower them to realize their immense potential in leading a self-sufficient life of their choosing. Through access to resources and educational training, EKARI beneficiaries are provided the opportunity to use their assets and capacities to work toward ending the cycle of poverty within their community. We first employ local teachers and partner with local organizations to work with those most in need rather than working for them. We bring in outside volunteers only when there is not the necessary support in Phalombe itself, and there is a minimum volunteer requirement of six months in an effort to give volunteers and Malawians enough time to build community together, and learn and grow mutually. These decisions may seem small, but they are at the center of our value of empowerment. We are not saying that our way is the only way or the best way (each organization must do what is best for their own programs), but simply that this is what works best for us. EKARI Foundation does not give hand-outs, because the Malawian people are more than capable of succeeding and becoming self-sufficient with the necessary training and support.

To learn more about voluntourism, visit the referenced link below, and feel free to tell us in the comments below some of your thoughts.

The Voluntourist Dilemma article:

Alita Campbell
EKARI Foundation Marketing Intern

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