For both high school and university level students in the United States, travel is a common desire. We crave to see the countries we've read about in school, seen on TV, and coveted on social media. One increasingly popular way that we can fulfill the wish to see the world is through volunteering abroad. Our human curiosity to learn about ourselves and the world has led us to a tourist-service hybrid coined "voluntourism." This new concept has inspired a series of ethical questions you might ask yourself if you're a student looking to go on a service trip abroad.
This term "voluntourism" opens the discussion for what your motivations are to volunteer abroad as well as the way in which you are volunteering abroad. Voluntourism, much like standard tourism, is critiqued of disrupting local economies, being unsustainable in nature, and reinforcing stereotypes. It's also gotten a bad reputation of being shallow — that people volunteer abroad so that they can post a picture of themselves on social media instead of actually learning from or positively impacting the host community.
While international volunteering is historically related to spreading religious beliefs and/or helping with disaster relief, it is now a growing sector within the tourism industry. Volunteering overseas used to mean staying in an underdeveloped community for the full duration of the stay and returning volunteers would say how they didn't get to visit the popular tourist attractions. Because of the technological advancements and increased leisure time of the 21st century, volunteering abroad can range in duration anywhere from a week or a few days to months while before volunteering abroad was more of a long term commitment.
Roughly, the cost to volunteer abroad for two weeks ranges from $200 - $3,000, often not including airfare to the country. Usually, these program fees cover basic housing costs, project supplies, and sometimes meals. Organizations create travel packages that include volunteering experience abroad sometimes in addition to sight-seeing and other activities in the country that are not specifically related to the project.
On a study abroad trip to India, I got to experience voluntourism first-hand. Although I am grateful for the opportunity to have had this enhancement to my studies, I recognize that despite the fact that I visited a non-profit while I was in the country, the majority of my trip was spent visiting sites like the Taj Mahal and the Amer Fort. Upon my arrival back in the United States, I boasted about how I got to work with children in a small village in Rajasthan even though I was only there for a day and a half. As I continue to study the work of non-profit organizations, I am in a constant battle with myself. I, like many others, have the travel-bug. I also desperately want to serve the world. So how do I not fall into the voluntourism trap?
I've come up with a few ideas to combat becoming this stereotype. I want to make sure I understand the impact I'm making. If I am volunteering abroad, no matter what duration of time I am staying, I should know the organization's mission and vision as well as some of its history. If it is a grassroots organization or it is run by the local community, it is more likely to address problems in ways that fit the community's needs.
While being a voluntourist, respecting the people you meet without belittling them and exploiting them is one of the most important things. While they might be fascinated by the camera and pose, for your work to be validated do you really need to post about it on Instagram? Just consider your motivations and intentions when you arrive in any new place. Lastly, be realistic. The work I did serving in India for a day and a half is not the same as if I had spent a few months volunteering on the same site. That does not mean that the work I did was worthless, but I have come to recognize that I probably have had more lasting internal change by volunteering than those I served.
Don't be discouraged though! Seeking a volunteer experience abroad is an opportunity that I would always recommend. Just be smart and respectful when traveling anywhere and be mindful of your impact.