The Pitfalls of Voluntourism

July 31, 2017 | By Min Joo Lee

It is a familiar picture now: a college student from the U.S. flying off to the Global South to spend her summer break “doing service work” in rural, lower-income villages. She teaches English in local schools, builds bathrooms, and posts pictures of herself on social media with the villagers, recounting the wonderful and impactful experience she had. Such amalgamation of tourism and volunteering, commonly deemed “voluntourism,” is a burgeoning industry worth about $173 billion, according to Hartman et al. The intentions of voluntourists to do good instead of going on beach vacations is heartening — having been one myself before, I can attest that all I wanted to do was to give to underserved communities. But, as many have rightfully pointed out, the practice of voluntourism is not without its pitfalls.

The biggest problem with voluntourism is that it seldom leads to real and maximized impact, and in many cases even causes harm to host communities. Most of these trips are short-term, which leads to unintended consequences such as high turnover in the orphanages for children who lost their parents to AIDS. This can easily lead to harmful effects such as attachment disorders in children who have already lost their parents. On top of this, voluntourists typically engage in projects that they prefer instead of prioritizing the needs of host communities. For instance, many of “service abroad” trips entail building bathrooms in rural areas instead of maintaining those that were already built, because building something is more exciting than maintaining it. The time and resources spent on building new, soon-to-be abandoned toilets, and international plane tickets could have easily been used to maximize the impact of projects already handled by local organizations designed around community needs. To boot, there are moral questions that loom from privileged voluntourists using usually formerly colonized, of-color members of the host communities as media to convince themselves and the world that they have done good, be it in person or through photos on social media.

Given the worrisome implications of voluntourism, the next question that we should be asking ourselves is what we are doing to combat such effects. At the Beeck Center, we value social impact for good. So are we designing programs such as GU Impacts so that they actually benefit host organizations and communities? Or are we simply falling into the trap of voluntourism?

There definitely are some aspects built into the program that aim to address these concerns. From the onset, the program strives to select locally-driven partnerships that actually need what Georgetown students have to offer — for instance, partnerships with growing non-profits with predominantly local staff looking to have English-speaking communications employees. It also selects applicants that have the humility and potential to accept that they don’t always know what is best for their host communities. After being selected, their training begins with reading articles such as “The Third World is Not Your Classroom” by Courtney Martin. In this article, Martin argues that developing communities are not responsible for exhausting their resources or providing rewarding experiences for American visitors, as critics of voluntourism have asserted. Faculty across Georgetown, including program partners from the Center for Social Justice and Sociology Department who have devoted their careers to navigating social justice, help lead orientation programs as well.

However, accepting that we have maximized social good with our program without a critical lens would not distinguish the GU Impacts program from potentially damaging volunteer trips. The program needs to remain vigilant about whether partnerships should continue based on their demands for and dependence on Georgetown students, as it claims to do in its annual program assessment. For example, if a non-profit grows beyond the scale of needing student communications fellows, the returns from the resources of the program might be optimized with a different organization. Furthermore, we must ask ourselves whether the training we offer our fellows is enough to ensure that the program encompasses fundamental respect and net benefit for the host communities. The quality of the training sessions aside, the time students spend in the entire two sessions is limited, which may not be enough time to instill the mindset to strive to bring social good instead of falling for the trap of nonchalant voluntourism. Thus, we should build upon existing efforts to maximize social impact with community-driven innovations by continuing to refine the GU Impacts program through monitoring the experiences and mindsets of fellows and accounting for the shifting nature of the needs of our partners.

Developing new solutions to old problems.

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