Voluntourism: Helpful or Not?

Volunteering abroad is becoming increasingly popular, especially among college students.  For most of us, it sounds like the perfect trip: you get to spend time helping the sick and impoverished during the day, lay out on the beautiful beaches of Costa Rica on the weekends, and hit up the bars at night.  In other words, you get to explore a vacation spot but feel good doing it because you’re mainly there to “help people”.

But how much help are we really doing by going on these week-to-month long trips?  Could we even potentially be hurting others with these “voluntourism” trips?  Dorinda Elliot certainly thinks so: http://www.cntraveler.com/ecotourism/2013/02/volunteer-vacations-rewards-risks.  In this article, she argues that real “help” can’t be achieved unless we have a deep understanding of their culture and the issues going on in their country.  Additionally, since these trips are only a few weeks long, she believes that long term improvements can never be made in these areas of need.  In fact, going in without being aware of the cultural and political issues of the foreign country can even be hurtful.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have stereotypes of the people living in third world countries.  However, like all stereotypes, they are not always correct.  When we go into their country without seriously taking the time to learn about their lifestyle and culture, our actions could be seen as offensive or even hurtful to the natives.  While Americans like to think they are the “angels swooping in to help”, let’s be honest here: we cannot seriously help a community that has been stuck in poverty for years in two weeks.  Most volunteers lack the skills necessary to do serious work, and more importantly, the work we do is not always helpful.  For example, we can’t go to a community in Africa and build wells if they don’t receive water in that area.  However, most American volunteers don’t take the time to learn about what the local community needs and assumes that all poor African neighborhoods could use wells.  When we hold the view that we are better than them, that could lead to some serious miscommunication problems.

Does this mean we should just get rid of voluntourism all together?

This debate about whether volunteering abroad is helpful or hurtful really interests me because I’ve personally been on these trips before.  Last summer, I went to Costa Rica on a medical service trip for two weeks.  We were a group of pre-health college students around the country opening free clinics in very poor neighborhoods.  Personally, I thought (and still think) this trip honestly did impact me and expose me to certain human interactions that I would not have experienced in Michigan.

I’ll be honest.  I walked into their neighborhood completely horrified and saddened by how dirty the entire place was.  I saw shivering and starving dogs wimpering on every street corner.  When I walked inside one of their homes, it looked exactly the same as the outside: no walls, no floors, and no doors.  Just cement and dirt everywhere.  Sick babies were coughing and throwing up on the ground inside their home because they didn’t even have trash cans.  I felt uncomfortable and sick to my stomach, and I felt horrible for everyone living there.  But this wasn’t a fair assessment of who they were as people.  I was seriously judging them, as I’m sure they were seriously judging me.  Our leaders encouraged us to talk to the families and share stories with them, and while we were scared at first, the ice was immediately broken we realized how welcoming they were.  As I spent more time with these families, my attitudes gradually started to change.  Watching the children laugh and play with each other, seeing the elderly woman kiss me on the cheek numerous times, and exchanging stories with different members of the neighborhood made me envious of their life.  I envied that they were able to live so simply and still be so happy with their life.  I envied that they were welcoming to me while my first notion was to judge them.  I envied that they had more compassion than most people I know back in Michigan.

 Yet, I don’t think this two week trip changed my life in any way.  Nor do I think I changed any lives by opening up a free clinic.  After reading the debate about voluntourism, I wonder if I even did help these Costa Rican natives at all.  Sure, I gave them free medicine to those who needed it, but I don’t think it will help them in the long run because their lifestyle probably did not change.  I’m scared to think about whether I actually hurt these families in some way.  What if I did more harm than good by going into these communities?

I’m interested to hear your opinions about this issue!  Have you been on these kinds of trips before?  What were your experiences like?  And finally, do you think voluntourism is really helpful or hurtful?


One thought to “Voluntourism: Helpful or Not?”

  1. Hey Shirley,

    I think this is a perfectly timed post because of spring break and since I went on a similar trip, I wanted to weigh in.

    I led an Alternative Spring Break trip to work with visually impaired and blind adults. Granted we were in Chicago so it wasn’t warm or anything, but there definitely I think was a tourism aspect to it.

    Previously before the trip I had no contact with the blind and visually impaired community, mostly because it’s hard to. A lot of blind or visually impaired people our age and older live at home. They are often times sheltered by their parents and are told that it’s safer if they stay inside. The Friedman Place in Chicago is an exception to that. It is one of two visually impaired and blind residence centers in all of the United States (the second one is also in Illinois). And to be honest, before the trip I held some of those views as well. My site contact mentioned that we would be working on an art project and going bowling while we were there. My immediate thought was how? (My dad actually said “who picked these activities for blind people?”) And each time I had to stop and remind myself that just because they can’t see doesn’t mean they can’t live dignified lives.

    A lot of our work at the Friedman Place was talking to the residents. I can’t tell you how many amazing stories I heard in addition to the horrible ones. For example, I learned that 70% of what you learn, you learn from sight. This means that these people are at at 70% disadvantage at learning, and because of this what a blind person needs help most with is information. They can do everything that we can do, they just have to do it a different way, and learning this and getting know know them better has definitely affected the way that I like about not only visual impairment, but disabilities of any kind.

    As far as really helping them, I’m not sure I did much. They had some more people to talk to which they really enjoyed, but I couldn’t do anything to make their situation any better or easier. However I did become educated on the subject in a way that I never would have been able to at home. A lot of the time we need to see something (notice the sighted privilege in that sentence) in order to really believe it and to understand what they’re lives really look like. Or as close as we can get to really understanding.

    While I may not have helped them too much, the things I learned have affected the way I see the world and how I will interact with blind and visually impaired people in the future. I now know the way to properly sighted-guide, and I know that they’re okay with you asking them their story. And while I’m just one person, I do think my outlook on life does affect others. Not because I’m amazing or anything, but because I’ve had experience that is rare to come by. The knowledge I acquired this past week definitely changed the way I view things and I don’t think I would have been able to say that had I just stayed at home and thought about social justice issues.

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