Voluntourism: How To And How Not To Change The World

Our First World privilege is going to our heads.

As a rising high school senior, I’ve seen it all. In third grade, I watched as a stream of upper school students lined up to hand in stacks of forms and cheques in exchange for 40 community service hours and a one week trip (read: vacation) to Africa. I’ve seen classmates reappear on Instagram after long absences with new photos of them hugging Chinese toddlers. And I’ve even contributed my own funds to a friend’s Me to We trip, one that promises students an epic and world-changing experience, as well as some hefty resume padding, for the small price of five grand.

Who are we kidding? Voluntourism (volunteer tourism) is the newest lie, in a long string of lies we have told ourselves, to make us feel better about being privileged.

It’s not that I’m against helping others, but voluntourism has proven that it does more harm than good. Take the story of Pippa Biddle, a student who took a trip to a Tanzanian orphanage to build a library, and later learned that construction workers had to, in the middle of the night, secretly rebuild the walls that she and her classmates had constructed during the previous day. Similarly fabricated to stimulate the industry of voluntourism, Nepal’s false orphanages left in their wake hundreds of children who were forcibly separated from their parents, abused, and made to pose as orphans to extract money from Westerners.

The truth is that voluntourism has become more of an industry than a cause, and it isn’t, at all, doing anything to contribute to the overall wellbeing of this world. Most of us, teenagers in particular, are not qualified to teach children, provide healthcare, build houses, or do anything that would be significantly helpful to those in developing countries, especially when we can barely take care of ourselves. Our actions are not contributing to the economy of a developing country or fostering a deeper understanding between our cultures. Instead, we are perpetuating a dangerous colonial mindset, one in which denizens of developing nations can only be helped by those from more “advanced” cultures.

We need to stop pretending that our voluntourism vacations are actual work. The general populace isn’t even qualified to build Ikea bookshelves, let alone orphanage libraries, and we won’t change the world, no matter how much the Me to We organization strokes our egos. Our intentions are appreciated, but our efforts aren’t. Only after we recognize these facts can we actually start making a difference.

Maybe nursing HIV infected children back to health isn’t the best pursuit for unskilled volunteers, but there are ways that we are uniquely qualified to make a difference. Volunteering at home is as worthy a pursuit as volunteering internationally. Why not volunteer to wash dishes at a soup kitchen, perform at a children’s hospital, or collect donations for the Salvation Army during the holidays? If volunteering’s not your thing, donations are also a great way to help. Donate your money and gently used belongings to a local or international organization that is experienced in mobilizing their resources in the most efficient way. Figure out what tasks you are qualified to handle if you are volunteering through a large organization, or volunteering internationally, be it liaising with locals, collecting donations, or organizing skilled volunteers. If you really want to help on the ground, join an international volunteer organization (usually non-profits, unlike voluntourism companies), such as the Peace Corps, or get qualified in construction/medicine/teaching/etc. And if you think long and hard about what you’re looking for, and realize that all you really want is a vacation, then congratulations, go take it.

List of ways to help:

  1. Volunteer locally. Search online for an organization in your city or country that connects volunteers to local organizations. Soup kitchens, food banks, hospitals, shelters, camps, retirement homes, schools, churches and missions, libraries, and non-profit organizations are always in need of volunteers. By helping out at a local organization, you will also benefit from being given tasks that you can actually accomplish.
  2. There are many ways to donate. Donate money to a cause of your choice, but make sure to thoroughly research them so that you can ensure they are using funds and other resources appropriately. You can also donate everyday items such as furniture, clothing, toys, Christmas gifts, school supplies, and food (though it is recommended that you donate money to food banks) to organizations, such as the library, food bank, the Salvation Army, or international organizations, that will, once again, mobilize your contributions appropriately. Organ and blood donation are also a great way to give, and you might get a cookie or two in return.
  3. Join a reputable international volunteer organization (different from a voluntourism company) in a capacity that you are qualified to handle. The Peace Corps is a good way to help if you’re an American citizen, but if you’re not, no worries! You can also volunteer through other non-profits such as the United Nations. If you’re qualified in some area that can make a concrete difference in the developing world, consider joining a specialized program such as Doctors Without Borders, that will ensure your skills are put to the best possible use. If you’re experienced in the corporate world, consider corporate volunteering for non-profits, or pro-bono work, but remember, as always, to background check for the organization you are going to be working for.
  4. Take the vacation. If you were planning on affording your vacation through voluntourism, consider other ways to get a discounted cost vacation, such as through travel hacking, airline mistake fees, backpacking, couch surfing, WWOOF, and affordable destinations.

Helping – really helping – won’t always be glamorous, high profile, or brag-worthy, and that’s okay! The biggest misconception of our generation is that we need to change the world to make a difference, when in fact, we only need to make a small difference to change the world.

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