Voluntourism is a growing and booming industry in which companies sell volunteer trips in the same manner travel companies sell vacation trips. Often, these volunteers are women and young adults between the ages of 20 and 25. They come with little or no training, a set task in mind, and a naive ambition to save the world. Whether they are aware of it or not, many of these volunteers have the notion that their American education and privileged life will allow them to make a difference despite the language, geographical, and cultural barriers they may face.
This of course, is not entirely the volunteers fault. They’re basically sold a lie by the companies providing them with this opportunity, that they will be able to make a great difference, despite the lack of training, and problematic nature of allowing volunteers to rotate through a classroom with no real curriculum to follow.
And of course, not all companies sending people to less privileged countries are like this. Some do have training and strict curriculum for the their volunteers. Those types of organizations, however, are starting to become hard to come by and often require a lengthy commitment time. The lengthy commitment time required has allowed for this niche industry of voluntouriusm to expand so rapidly.
These companies know that the nature of their programs can often have detrimental effects on the communities they’re supposed to be serving. Looking at orphanage tourism, in which companies send volunteers to orphanages, is the best way to explain how companies can sell an experience that’s marketable as being life-changing for both the volunteer and the children involved, even though it’s actually damaging the child long-term.
The voluntourisum industry understands that it’s an extremely satisfying experience to have a child immediately attach themselves to a volunteer. This desire to be needed that we feel, however, is not more important than the genuine health of the child -- supposedly, the reason the company exists in the first place.
These children have already experiences loss and abandonment, and companies are fully aware the impact a volunteer leaving has on the child will not be seen by that volunteer. As put by the Barbie Savior Project, healthy children do not jump into a stranger’s arms. That's a sign of serious attachment issues and is not normal behavior. To perpetuate this behavior with the popularization of this industry of orphan tourism is intentional hypocrisy.
It’s easy to place the blame on the organizers within the volunteerism industry for prying on the naivety of volunteers. It’s vital to understand that responsibility falls on both the companies and the consumers. After all, they are businesses. Posting a picture of volunteer with the homeless and hunger in their own county is a lot less marketable than a picture with a child in a third world country. What these companies are doing, even though it is what many believe to be unethical, is not illegal.
It’s up to the volunteers, who are basically consumers, to understand what their impact will be through the methods different volunteer organizations utilize. It’s also up to the perspective volunteer to be able to acknowledge that the social dichotomy in North America allows for it’s residents to be oblivious to the issues of homelessness and hunger within our own continent, and that an impact can be made regardless of where you volunteer, despite what many of the companies within this industry advertise.
Furthermore, the consumers themselves should really consider what impact their short presence really has on the service community as a whole. It my personal belief that a lot of these trips perpetuate a white savior complex. It’s not a far stretch to say that the majority of volun-tourists from the United States in third countries, whether it be in a orphanage or not, are white.
The pictures that come out of these trips include one well dressed white person in front of a group of children with darker pigmentation. Some cite this image as being reminiscent of colonization. Poverty is the reality for the majority in the photo. For many but not all that go on these trips, their poverty has become a vacation, a source of ogling. Whether intentional on the volunteers part or not, some of these trips act as a validation of privilege in result of the emotional experience to come out of the trip.
Ultimately, volunteering should be about the people, often children, in the communities these voluntarism groups frequent. Traveling is certainly a fun aspect of volunteering, but should not be the main motivator. It’s clear that these children affected by volunteers deserve better. They deserve mentors, they deserve teachers that speak English and their own languages, along with sufficient teaching materials provided from the companies that have the supposed purpose of aiding in the betterment of these children's lives. They do not deserve the bulk of what volun-tourisum industry is.
Volunteering abroad does not have to keep continuing on this trend. There’s a history of Western allies working with a variety of organizations in developing communities in more efficient and responsible ways. It’s ultimately up to volunteers to have a level of self-awareness of their own potential impact, and the efficiency and social consciousnesses of the organizations they choose to serve with.