Lifting the Veil Off of Voluntourism

A recent New York Times debate re-ignited the controversy surrounding a form of travel particularly popular among young people today: voluntourism. An alternative vacation marketed to backpackers with a conscience, voluntourism has recently gained a niche market among those who wish to get more out of their holidays than just a suntan and some postcards. Promoting travel that makes a difference, those participating on voluntour trips travel to developing and Third World countries with the purpose of aiding in the construction of schools, hospitals, or other needed facilities in the region.  As a concept, this sounds both remarkable and marketable: send open minded individuals looking for adventure into relatively unstable environments, and encourage them to make a difference. However, this is where the controversy begins. Still, while many criticize the goals promoted on volunteer trips, there are certainly some organizations that deliver more than just an alternative holiday. These organizations do not promote the kind of voluntourism which masquerades as nothing more than a Band-Aid solution to the problems facing developing nations. 

As Amy Ernst wrote in her New York Times debate piece, “The problem with many volunteer trips is that good intentions are often not enough. Wanting to create change does not necessarily mean that you have the skills or access to the resources needed to make that happen.” Sadly, what so often occurs on voluntour trips is even less helpful to communities than if those participating had just stayed home. Sending a group of people – young or old – into a region for which they are totally unprepared, and expecting them to solve the complex and multifaceted issues that so many nations face on their path towards sustainable development by building a couple of schools or a hospital is, at best, wishful thinking. At worst, it undermines the very progress these trips hope to promote. More often than not, these buildings remain unoccupied, as nations lack the infrastructure to bring teachers or doctors – not to mention adequate supplies – into these newly constructed spaces. This is why so many experts and commentators in the field of developmental science criticize the practice, stating, as Ernst did, that “by sending volunteers to do complicated tasks, we set them up for failure and increase the likelihood that their trips become poverty tourism rather than productive service work.” 

While there exist numerous flaws with the standard voluntourism package, some local and international non-governmental organizations do their homework when it comes to planning a trip that gives back to communities. Peacework, an international non-governmental institution that engages communities, academic institutions, and corporations to work together across different sectors in order to confront developmental roadblocks around the world, focuses mainly on seven different disciplines: agriculture, business, education, engineering, health, public service, and technology. In all Peacework programs, a strong emphasis is placed on partnerships that promote grassroots, participatory, and sustainable models of community engagement to incite positive individual and communal transformation. Those participating on voluntour trips with the organization are encouraged to investigate and explore the many social, economic, political and cultural forces at play within the community in which they are engaged.  In promoting an environment in which volunteers travel to nations to learn about a culture starkly different than their own, and provide sustainable and useful forms of development aid – such as delivering medical supplies or aiding doctors who are currently practicing in these nations – Peacework volunteers enter an arrangement that is mutually beneficial and sustainable in the long term. 

Young volunteers offer unique sets of skills and experiences that most current placement organizations don’t do enough to take advantage of. The University of Toronto chapter of the organization specifically hopes to engage bright young minds at U of T to broaden their own horizons, and apply the skills they already possess, both in and out of the classroom, to community-driven projects that enhance opportunities and conditions for all community members. Through this exchange of knowledge and skill, those participating on trips with Peacework will learn more about the world, and understand that the most dynamic way to drive change is through the exchange of ideas. 

It must be noted that the assistance provided by Peacework volunteers who work in the medical sector is not direct medical care. This would be an ethical and legal breach that is not, nor has ever been, the intention of Peacework.

 In the concluding portion of her article, Ernst stressed that, “Accountability and humility are key. You may not have a training booklet telling you what’s right or wrong, but local experts exist everywhere. And if you look hard enough, you will find that all skills are needed; you just need to figure out where and how to apply them in the appropriate context.” This is exactly what Peacework hopes to accomplish on its volunteer trips.