When I started college, I was shocked by the number of people I had met who had traveled abroad for mission trips or service to the poor of some kind. Many people had been to Central America, and a few had even been to Africa. They had fascinating stories, and nearly all of them could list countless ways their lives had been changed. They talked about poor orphan children who they helped and showed me pictures of them surrounded by a sea of smiling little children. It seemed to make sense. After all how could sending a group of fairly well-to-do Americans to some third world country cause any harm? It wasn't until an article about this phenomenon, called voluntourism popped on my Facebook that I realized how wrong I was. Here are five reasons why this industry creates little good in the world.
1. Volunteers don't stay for long.
Most of the volunteers spend a maximum of a few weeks in their placement. They come into the lives of the locals for a few weeks, only to be whisked away quickly and replaced with a fresh bunch of recruits. Most of the volunteers don't have the time to form deep, genuine relationships with the locals simply because the stay is so short. And for those who think they do, when was the last time you contacted someone you met in that country? This constant rotation of tourists does nothing to help the local people, especially the children. Think about it; how would it feel to have people coming in and out of your life on a regular basis?
2. Volunteers are unskilled workers.
Most of the volunteers are young white Americans who may be fresh out of college, in high school or taking a gap year. Many of them are unskilled workers who have had no professional training in any skills such as healthcare or education. They are sent to these locations with practically no skills to help the locals. Without skills, they are hardly able to make a much of a contribution to the community besides maybe helping a child write a small composition or swinging a hammer. If anything, they are in the way of the more competent locals.
3. The Bible doesn't fill your stomach.
I understand why people want to go out and preach the Bible, but when that is your sole purpose are you really achieving much? Sure, the argument can be made that you're saving souls, but when people are literally starving to death, do you think they really care about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Handing out Bibles to people is beneficial I suppose if they can pawn it for money to buy food to feed themselves. Other than that, I don't see what they get out of it.
4. There are more beneficial ways to spend your money.
Most of the companies who help voluntourists go abroad are for-profit organizations, so the money these volunteers pay isn't going to help the locals. It's going to pay the salaries of the people who own the organizations. The average trip costs about $2,000. There are plenty of other more beneficial ways that money could be spent. There are plenty of articles and studies that show giving money is one of the best ways to help.
5. It's a self-serving journey.
Voluntourism is designed to affect the individual volunteer, not the locals. And in that regard voluntourism is successful. But isn't the goal of volunteering to impact others? Aren't we supposed to be serving others instead of focusing on ourselves? If the most moving thing you get out of serving people in South Africa is feeling good about yourself and having a super cool Facebook profile picture, then doesn't that defeat the purpose of helping South Africans?
These are just a few of the reasons volunteer tourism isn't the best options for volunteers, but none of this is to say that volunteering in other countries is worthless. For those of you who want to volunteer abroad, there are plenty of reputable non-profit organizations out there that make a positive impact in the world. The Peace Corps send skilled volunteers to underdeveloped countries for an average of two years. Habitat for Humanity sends volunteers for extended periods of time to work with local people to build houses. Organizations such as Tourism Concern have advice for anyone who is interested in working with organizations that really make a difference. There is no denying that volunteers can have a great impact on a community, but voluntourism is not the answer.