Should ‘voluntourism’ be a thing?

You could be doing this whole voluntourism thing wrong. Source: Shutterstock.

VOLUNTEER TOURISM, or voluntourism, is a travel and tourism trend that claims to be linked to “doing good”. But some deem it to be quite controversial.

Well-established organizations such as UNICEF, Save the Children, CARE International, and World Vision have been pushing initiatives to promote voluntourism to raise money for orphans and vulnerable children.

But it has come under severe criticism.

In “Queen of Pop” Madonna’s I Am Because We Are documentary, the singer claimed Malawi is in a “state of emergency”, with over a million children orphaned by AIDS living on streets, in abandoned buildings, and are being abducted, kidnapped, or raped.

Malawi’s situation was also something that UNICEF has highlighted in the past, but Madonna’s claim was inaccurate. According to Capital FM Malawi, citing government data, Malawi has over 10,000 street children.

Because Madonna is such a high profile artist with such a big influence, what she did could have adverse effects.

What this does is give aspiring voluntourists a false perception of the place and the struggles of the people. The same way what poverty-stricken and suffering-filled images of Africa will lead people to believe.

Exaggerations and false claims can draw unwanted attention and encourage exploitation. Source: Shutterstock.

This draws attention from to-be amateur humanitarian workers, usually high school and college students, who are interested in seeing new places but also serve the community all at the same time.

Although they believe that by lending a helping hand, they’re directly addressing suffering, they have very few relevant skills to be humanitarian workers. The travels will ideally only serve the traveler, not so much the people or the children.

“Instead, volunteers take part in service projects like basic construction, painting, tutoring in English and maths, distributing food, or ‘just being a friend’ to children perceived as alone and in need of social support,” The Conversation wrote.

Therefore, despite the good intentions, they could come across as not so helpful after all and their travels superficial.

Think you know all there is to know about voluntourism? Source: Shutterstock.

The other things to consider is the legitimacy and genuineness of the organizations and their programs. Modern technology such as social media makes calling out for help easy, but are they all as sincere as they make themselves out to be?

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today show, Harry Potter author and activist J.K. Rowling broached the subject of voluntourism.

“They may not realize it, but they are driving what is sometimes a lucrative business model, they are keeping the institution open as a magnet for funding or private donations, they are driving a system that we know from eighty sound years of research irreparably harms children,” she said.

Rowling added that abusive orphanages sometimes traffic malnourished children around various institutions to encourage wealthy donors to send money, or sexually abuse the children in their care.

“There are children that are being severely abused and neglected, but children tell us that they are told they have to smile and sing and tell the volunteers they love them, otherwise they’ll be beaten or locked up or they won’t get food.”

The issue is prevalent in Cambodia. Cambodian Children’s Trust and the Cambodian government are currently racing to rescue Cambodian children (starved, beaten, and raped) from orphanages exploiting them for profit.

Don’t be a part of the voluntourism problem. Source: Shutterstock.

This doesn’t mean that voluntourism shouldn’t be a thing. For all intents and purposes, it’s a good travel and tourism trend to heal the world. But there are things people should know before jumping on the bandwagon.

For example, those interested in volunteering must study the political, social, economic, and cultural histories of the places they intend to visit. Mutual respect is needed so general knowledge is important.

Volunteers should also do due diligence and put some research into the organization that they’re applying through. If need be, volunteers should ask for a breakdown of where the money goes as well as a request for evidence of previous volunteers and the difference they’ve made.

Case in point: People and Places, a social enterprise committed to responsible volunteering, publishes its figures.

More importantly, aspiring voluntourists should go with a mindset that it’s a cultural exchange and not humanitarian relief.