Pi Travel gets UCL to weigh in on the voluntourism debate
To travel is to expand your horizons, and many believe that they have to do something meaningful while abroad to make their time and money worth it. After all, accomplishing something or ‘achieving a positive impact’ during a trip feels more like a step in the right direction of self-actualisation, compared to merely visiting all the attractions a travel guide suggests. That is why so many students who take a gap year before university, or even through and after university, choose to travel to the remotest of places to build a school and teach children in orphanages. As part of #pitravelfebruary, we have polled the students of UCL and got them to share their opinion on voluntourism, which is travel that includes volunteering for a charitable cause. Here’s what some of you have to say:
“The main issue would be the motivation and intent of those who volunteer, but helping a community usually requires commitment for the long-term. If I’m not mistaken, when you go on such ‘voluntours’, you are only in a city for a week, with just two to three days dedicated to helping a specific group, and then sightseeing and shopping for the rest of your time. In the end, communities become complacent, and might become over-reliant on external help. There’s this Chinese proverb that goes ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. Of which the former is what voluntourism essentially encapsulates.”
More often than not, voluntourism turns into an exercise to massage the egos of the ‘developed world’
“You need to commit if you truly want to make a positive impact – exactly what voluntourism does not allow you to do. Travel, and by extension voluntourism, is inherently transient.”
“I am against it! I don’t think people should have to pay for such things. For voluntourism, you have to pay, your funds go to an agency, and there are set packages and itineraries. It’s wrong for organisations to specifically conduct tours for people to view poverty, and to act like they care for three weeks. The other problematic aspect is its duration – they tend to be very short. And that you don’t have control over the money invested, since much of it goes to ‘administrative costs’ etc.”
“It feels slightly exploitative, in the way that we are exploiting their ‘underdeveloped’ situation to make ourselves feel like we are doing something to help. There are others around us that need help too, and I feel that travelling to another country to help others is not any more noble than helping those around me.”
“It depends if proper background checks have been done to see what the areas really need. And even so, the best intentions can turn out to be disasters in reality – some village I visited had an energy generator that required footballs to be kicked at it. It turned out to be impractical and useless. More often than not, voluntourism turns into an exercise to massage the egos of the ‘developed world’, or just another opportunity to visit beautiful places for cheap(er). Even with such caveats, voluntourism can be positive as long as the help is welcomed. Any sustainable progress is better than no progress at all.”
Voluntourism began with the best of intentions and the honourable aims of improving the lives of others around the world
“I don’t oppose voluntourism.
- It generates jobs and plays a crucial part in many undeveloped economies. Many places rely on tourism to a great extent and their local industries exist mainly to cater to foreigners.
- Depending on the type of volunteering work provided, it may produce positive benefits for the community. Teaching, for instance, especially foreign languages, is a service that can be easily provided by volunteers. As long as a proper system is in place, perhaps in the form of a syllabus, and there is a constant supply of volunteers, it can make a lasting impact on the community. Ad hoc projects, like building schools, aren’t the most helpful, since I’m pretty sure there are more qualified builders in the community who would otherwise benefit from the employment, compared to volunteers armed with rudimentary skills. Volunteers are most useful when they bring a skill set absent or scarce in that community.
- It is an experience for the volunteers. Voluntourism is not just meant to benefit the local community, but also the volunteers. It’s a learning experience for them, one that will perhaps change their perspectives and encourage them to make a better change in the world.
On the face of it, voluntourism is beneficial, but this can be negated if the service provided is already available in the community, is on an ad hoc basis, or does not establish or change existing systems in the community. For example, clearing rubbish is not the most useful work a volunteer can engage in. Instead, planning and establishing a proper waste disposal system and facility is the long-term solution, and is a solution that volunteers armed with perhaps professional knowledge are best doing.”
‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. The former is what voluntourism essentially encapsulates.
“Undoubtedly, voluntourism began with the best of intentions and the honourable aims of improving the lives of others around the world. However, I think it’s something that people need to give careful consideration before embarking on their noble missions. Is the organisation they work for really going to make a tangible difference and help implement positive changes in the local communities they operate in? Are they helping the local people gain real and useful skills in order to improve their quality of life? Or are they just going to spend a few weeks abroad, take a few happy snaps of themselves knocking up a slapdash orphanage/animal sanctuary/school and then return to the comfort of their own home? Many voluntourism organisations are a force of good – it’s just important to do some thorough research into their credentials.”
Is voluntourism just a rite of passage for the kids of the developed world? Have you been on such a trip before? What do you feel about volunteering as part of your travel experience? Tweet us your opinion at @_PiTravel with the hashtag #pitravelfebruary, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or comment below!
Featured image taken from a GVI promotional video