The Problems with Voluntourism

This is a difficult article to write, and I think I will offend a great many people. I want to preface it by saying that I’ve been there – I’ve participated in many volunteer abroad programs (some which charged me a hefty fee, and others I found for free). I’ll speak to some of the more harmful experiences I’ve had, but I want to make it clear that, for the most part, I believe the principles that motivate people to participate in these programs are good and honorable. I’m not so cynical as to believe that these opportunities solely exist for us to feel good about ourselves and take cute pictures, but even at its best, voluntourism is usually misguided and ineffective.

Instead of including exploitative pictures of orphans, we’ve elected to use an adorable painting of a puppy. Cute, huh? Art by Matt Cosby.

I once volunteered at a baby home in South America. After my morning Spanish lessons, I would go there every day for four hours to play with the children, change diapers, and help with feedings. One child became very attached to me – after a few weeks, he refused to let anyone else dress or feed him when I was around. He would hobble over to me every time he saw me, and refuse to leave my side. I became very attached to him, too, and even started harboring unrealistic dreams of adopting him (I was 18 and had not yet begun college, so I recognized even at the time how absurd this was, but I loved him). The women who worked at this home saw how much we had bonded, and they told me that I would need to begin rejecting him, in order to make it easier on him when I left. This didn’t make sense to me – it seemed that my rejection of him would be much crueler than just leaving him (I doubt a two year old could really miss me anyways, and I’m sure he didn’t remember me long after I left). I listened to them, though – these women knew the children better than I did, they had worked in the baby home for many years and seen many foreigners come and go. When the child came to me, I began to walk away. I would dress and feed and play with other children, and deliberately ignore him. The other women tended to him and I ignored my impulse to soothe him every time he cried. I still feel awful about it – I wish I had protested more, because I think it was a lousy thing that I did to him, all in a misguided attempt to protect him.

This situation was difficult for me, but I felt pretty certain at the time that I was still doing something good and noble. The more I thought about it, though, the more it became clear to me that my presence (and the presence of many dozens of foreigners who had come before me) was potentially exacerbating an already tough situation.

What didn’t strike me until much later, though, was how little effort was made to find out about me and my motives before allowing me to come volunteer in the baby home. I paid a fee, answered five short questions, and was immediately placed. Maybe they felt that 18 year old girls were probably not the people they needed to be concerned about, but every so often we read about pedophiles in Southeast Asia, fueled by the prospect of unencumbered access to kids, who were able to keep a low profile – or even maintain a guise of benevolence – while harming local children. That’s exactly what happened last year, when a British orphanage owner was arrested for sexual assault of children under his care in Cambodia. If you were a parent, you wouldn’t allow foreign strangers to come stay in your home with unfettered access to your kids for hours each day, at least not without thoroughly vetting them beforehand. Yet this is exactly what for-profit volunteer organizations allow when they accept unvetted foreigners into their programs, and allow them to play with children and then leave them them whenever the urge strikes.

Many organizations want to turn a profit, and they don’t make efforts to find out where their money is coming from or what our motives are. I know the vast majority of you readers are not pedophiles, and many of you are likely thinking, “yeah, that’s terrible – but I’m not part of the problem, I would never harm a child.” And I believe that – most of us would never knowingly harm a child, but by supporting agencies which exist to turn a profit without any regard for the local children, we’re still complicit. Furthermore, my experience in Chile made it clear to me that even the most well-intentioned volunteers can cause damage; it can’t be good for children to form bonds with us and then watch us come and go, when locals could form lasting relationships with them. Even worse, many tour operators offer the opportunity for visitors to pop into a “third world” orphanage for an afternoon, to gawk and take pictures as if they’re visiting animals at the zoo. These children need stability (and privacy in their own home) – we would never want this sort of situation for children in the states, and the fact that many of us participate in it abroad is reprehensible.

Other popular voluntourism organizations lure us with beautiful pictures of beaches and cute animals. “Save the coastline!”, they tell us. “Protect endangered sea turtles!” But we all know what complete tripe that is, don’t we? On some level, we recognize that no matter how many trees we plant, we really can’t make amends for the carbon footprint involved with just getting us there in the first place. Still, we’re placated by these activities – at the very least, we’re “offsetting” the damage we’re doing. But is that enough? Is that really something to pat ourselves on the back about? If the best we can hope for is to offset the damage we’re doing, it seems unfair to dump all our misplaced Western guilt on poor people.

Did you know that a baby armadillo is called a "diglet"?

Waking up every four hours to nurse this baby armadillo did not do any real net good for the environment, but my plane ticket to Belize certainly did net harm. But isn’t my little diglet cute!

So, it’s fair to say that most of the voluntourism agencies I’ve come across are no good, and we’ve seen why paying to volunteer might not be the best course of action. Furthermore, a lot of people get aggravated that programs require we pay to volunteer. I’ve heard countless people complaining about the absurdity of having to pay to work, but the sad truth is, sometimes the only good we can really do is with our money. What’s ludicrous is the number of unskilled people who really think they should be paid to work in orphanages or build homes abroad. When an organization can afford to pay for work, they can and should employ locals, not 18 year old foreigners who know next to nothing.

And some of you might be thinking, “yeah, but isn’t it the thought that counts?” The answer is no. Nice thoughts won’t give orphans stable and healthy living environments, nor will they provide people with clean drinking water and homes and jobs. A nice thought will help wealthy foreigners feel good about ourselves, but it’s not what really counts. Others will say, “but volunteering abroad was one of the most edifying and memorable experiences of my life. I got so much out of it!” and I don’t doubt that, because I can relate. But doesn’t that show that these opportunities really boil down to our self-centered desires?

So what can you do if you really do want to help out?

1. This will be an unpopular answer, but you can donate money to respected, well-established local charities. Your money can probably go a long way towards helping to employ locals, many of whom will be able to do the job you’re doing much more effectively than you could. You won’t get to take home a bunch of cute pictures of yourself with a slew of impoverished children, but if that’s your motivation, you really should stay home anyways.

2. This will be another unpopular answer, but volunteer locally. I promise you don’t have to travel far to find people in need. I know helping out at your local soup kitchen won’t provide you with the same stories as a trip to Thailand to scoop up elephant poop or a month volunteering at an orphanage in South Africa, but they probably need you just as badly, you probably can better commit to long-term engagement, you’ll know the culture and local needs a good bit better, and your carbon footprint will be almost nothing. You’ll also be able to stick around and see positive changes in your own community, and that is awesome.

Yes, you can pay $100 a day to scoop up baby elephant poop in Thailand. No I did not actually do this.

3. If you have a skill, absolutely, donate your time and energy. I participated in a Habitat for Humanity trip abroad (in which they: used asbestos as insulation, repeatedly referred to the home recipients [publicly and sanctimoniously] as “needy”, and used our free labor to fund non-Habitat for Humanity homes. But I digress.) It took the supervisors a great deal of time and energy to train us, and I don’t think they were compensated by the labor we did. What made me feel qualified to build houses, when it took me and many of the other volunteers hours to accomplish what skilled locals could do in 15 minutes? What ugly unexamined assumptions was I harboring about what it entails to be American and relatively wealthy? How much actual good could we have accomplished had we taken the money we spent on our trips and donated it to an organization which employs locals to build homes for families in need?

This is where I “built a house” (read: wandered blithely around with power tools while other people did the real skilled work)

However, a few of the trip participants were trained carpenters, and they were able to genuinely help out. Were there skilled local carpenters who could have done the same work? Absolutely – but few would have done it for free, much less at their own expense. On the same note, I’ve also taught English abroad in a few countries, mostly short-term. I might speak with a clearer accent than local teachers, but speaking a language is not the same as knowing how to teach a language and, furthermore, I have no idea how to prepare lesson plans or command a formal classroom. I don’t think great benefit was obtained from my classes, either, and it doesn’t provide students with a stable classroom environment to have drifters coming and going every few weeks, and no syllabus can maintain any sort of coherency when teachers are coming and going willy-nilly. If you’re a trained teacher, though, and willing to give up a year or a semester of your time, by all means put your skills to use. Those with a medical background can also do real good with organizations like Doctors Without Borders, but if you’re an unskilled teenager wanting to change the world, you’re probably not going to do it by spending a few weeks voluntouring in between pub crawls and museum visits.

4. Plant a tree and grow a garden in your own backyard – no carbon offset required, and you’ll actually get to enjoy the fruits of your own labor!

5. Travel anyways. Forget about volunteering altogether, just travel to support local businesses, bolster local economies, and learn from people who might not share the same worldview as you do. Travel to learn – learn their language, learn their culture and history, learn about the systems which keep people poor. Then, maybe, in the future, you’ll be in a position to teach.

6. If you really, really want to volunteer abroad, and you know of a solid organization and are confident in your ability to help, look for long-term opportunities. It will take a while for you to be trained, and even longer for you to get good at the work you’re doing. The idea of a 2-week holiday abroad really doing any good is complete bull, but 6 months or a year might be enough time for you to get really good at the work you need to do.

Read more here on the harms of visiting orphanages. Have you volunteered abroad? Do you know of any really great organizations that deserve a shout-out, or have any suggestions for people who really want to make the world we live in just a little bit better? I’d love to hear about them.

20 Comments

  1. laura says:

    What a conveniently self-serving worldview. Did the orphanage you worked with need a system to vet potential volunteers? Why not help them create one? The Habitat for Humanity organization used jargon you found condescending? Why not approach the issue with those who were perpetuating the language? Addressing these issues locally will do a lot more good than drawing sweeping conclusions in an online blog they will probably never read.

    Take the young child you connected with at the orphanage, who we agree needs stability and an education. Why not skip the pub crawls you mentioned and rise to the occasion? You’re right – it could go wrong. But if you do nothing, the chance that he will end up without an education and a home is much higher than if you put some time and energy into the betterment of his situation. Sure, you can’t adopt children all around the world, and it sounds like you’ve been doing short term volunteer gigs in many different locations, spreading your efforts too thin for sustainable impact. Why not rail against that, then, rather than drawing conclusions about all of voluntourism?

    From one example, you conclude that those who donate to orphanages are complicit in “supporting agencies which exist to turn a profit without any regard for the local children.” You’ve drawn some mighty big conclusions from a few short experiences, honey. As a couchsurfer, you should know better than to call for the end of orphanages which depend on volunteers simply because sometimes, in the extreme minority of cases, sick people get into the system. May I ask what exactly orphans are to do if these organizations aren’t going to have any volunteers, or even managers as you listed in your example? Might the children encounter a few sickos while living on the street? Wouldn’t the best way to make sure organizations are not corrupt or infiltrated by pedophiles be to keep them open and public, rather than closed off to outsiders? Your type of play-and-throw-away volunteering might not be a great example. Luckily not everyone volunteers like you do.

    I agree with you completely that our money can help hire local employees who will likely do an excellent job in many of these positions. But who is going to throw a dart on a map and donate significant funds to the charity they happen to hit in Zimbabwe – an organization they know nothing about? Many of these organizations are starved for local resources, and depend on the donations they get from foreigners to sustain their operations. Many volunteers continue to donate to trustworthy organizations and individuals the rest of their lives after living for a period abroad. This is an option. Or, we could all plant trees in our backyards, continue the pub crawls and forget that there might be a few people over the ocean slightly more needy than those in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Just a thought.

  2. Raphaela says:

    Hi Laura,
    I appreciate your comments, and thank you for taking the time to write such a detailed response. I also want to address some of your criticisms – many of which, I believe, stem from a misreading of my post. You should reread it before posting again. It seems like you’re agreeing with most of our points (ie, that volunteering for long stretches of time is much more worthwhile, that stretching yourself thin is a bad idea, that donating money will probably be more beneficial than volunteering).
    .
    Now, to address your criticisms. I hope I didn’t imply that I was silent about my problems with the Habitat build. I did bring up my concerns with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, and when they didn’t address the problems, I brought my concerns to the umbrella Habitat organization.
    .
    However, even if I had not addressed these issues locally, I still think plenty of value comes from raising issues for discussion. It is important for people with experience with this sort of thing to raise issues for discussion, both online and offline, so that solutions can be discussed and awareness can be spread. This post was targeted towards people like me at the start of my travels – naive, idealistic young people who would be tempted to join some of the troubled programs I mentioned, people who are very much not interested in that sort of “play-and-throw-away” volunteering, but may not know any better.
    .

    You asked me why I did not step up and adopt the kid whom I had bonded with – did you just not give the article a close enough reading or do you genuinely believe that it is possible or beneficial for an 18 year old foreigner with little money, no support, and no education to adopt a child? I doubt very much that I could have given him a stable life, and I can’t imagine that there is a reputable adoption agency on the planet that would have allowed that, anyways.
    .

    You said: “From one example, you conclude that those who donate to orphanages are complicit in ‘supporting agencies which exist to turn a profit without any regard for the local children.’”
    .
    I never said that, I said that we are complicit when we support voluntourism agencies which exist to turn a profit without any regard for the local children. I was referring specifically to the agencies (like the one which placed me in the orphanage) which allow unvetted foreigners to come and go as we please. I never said anything about those who donate to orphanages. If you are interested in reading more about these harms of these type of agencies, I suggest you visit this site, which is eye-opening and really important: http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting/
    .
    From their site: ” How do I harm children by visiting an orphanage?
    Many orphanages rely almost entirely on donations from visitors to survive. Thus directors may purposefully maintain poor living conditions for children to secure funds from tourists. Children who appear underserved may come across as a cry for help more than children who appear well fed and cared for. This of course places guilt on tourists if they do not help immediately. By visiting orphanages and making a donation you may be fuelling a system that exploits children.” (http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/en/content/tip4/qna.html )
    .
    I absolutely agree with their mission, and also with their advice – the best thing we can do if we care about the welfare of third-world children is to support initiatives that keep families and communities together. Also – many children are abused in their own homes by their own parents, yet I can’t imagine you’d suggest that their homes should be open to the public so that we can all police each other – why should children in orphanages not be granted the same level of privacy? This is their home.
    .
    It sounds like you think I was calling for foreign volunteer-staffed orphanages to be shut down, but really, I was calling for people to donate money instead of time so that local people can be vetted and hired for a more stable and safer environment for children. Is it likely that anything will change as a result of this post? Probably not, but a problem has to be acknowledged before it can be solved, and that is part of what I am trying to do. I do think there are feasible alternatives better for all those involved. I gave many tips at the bottom for those who want to do good. Not once did I say that volunteering abroad, under all circumstances, is an immoral or naive thing to do.
    .
    I do take issue with your snide dismissal of homeless populations in our own country (they don’t have the greatest safety net, either). I would also like to know how in the world you got the impression that I implied that we should all just “forget that there might be a few people over the ocean slightly more needy than those in Bridgeport, Connecticut”. I hope we never forget those people, and it’s out of a deep caring for them that I wrote this article in the first place.

    (And if we’re going to communicate further, it would mean a lot to me if you refrain from calling me “honey”. I find it condescending, sexist, and unproductive.)

  3. laura says:

    Hi Raphaela,
    .
    Like your thoughts on my comments, I think you might have misread what I wrote. While I did suggest that you “rise to the occasion” upon bonding with the young child, I did not suggest you adopt him. Search for the word “adopt” on this page and you’ll see that you’ve used it five times and I wrote it once to say that you CAN’T adopt all the children in the world. I was suggesting that you fundraise for his education, or for nutritious food to be served at the orphanage, or return to the orphanage each year to keep up contact with the child as he grows older, avoiding the sticky situation you mentioned of having to unnaturally extricate yourself from his life. My view on that situation is that it’s already happened, the bond has been formed — now what is the best way to proceed? Surely there is something more you can do than say goodbye and act like you wish you never met him. Hopefully he will be adopted by a loving local family. Perhaps you could assist in that process, or more likely, help assist the orphanage as they care for him before a local family materializes. A local family would be far more likely to volunteer to take him in if his food or education were subsidized by a friendly organization or group of donors. Of course I don’t know the details of the situation, which is why I initially left it at “rise to the occasion.”
    .
    I agree with you that some orphanages deserve our donations while others might, as you put it, “exist to turn a profit” — but how are we to know the differences between these organizations if we never see them with our own eyes? I repeat my question: who is going to throw a dart on a map and donate significant funds to the charity they happen to hit – an organization they know nothing about? Even using tools like Charity Navigator, it is truly unlikely that anyone would donate more money to an organization with whom they do not have a personal connection. Organizations know this, and it’s often part of their vibrant community-outreach campaigns.
    .
    I also find it curious how in one paragraph you write, “I never said anything about those who donate to orphanages” while in the next, you quote the “eye-opening and really important website” which states: “By visiting orphanages and making a donation you may be fuelling a system that exploits children.” Really – how are we to know which organization is which if we don’t forge personal connections?
    .
    Perhaps we have both misunderstood each other, because we are both arguing for strong local support. If this were the entire answer – not in the past but in the present globalized world as we know it – then we would not see the high child mortality that exists around the world. Of course I am not arguing that children in orphanages should not have privacy – at the same time, I think that harmful people can work inside an organization (as exemplified by the article you linked above) and it’s not a terrible idea to include caring foreign volunteers who can both help and mobilize significant funds for struggling organizations after they depart. I agree these volunteers should be vetted, and again, I ask why you didn’t help create a volunteer vetting program if you identified the need?
    .
    On to my apparent “snide dismissal of homeless populations in our own country.” I never mentioned the homeless in my post, so I’m not sure where you got that idea. Again, I think you might have misinterpreted my writing. After living in Africa for two and a half years, I came to the (very well documented statistically and journalistically) conclusion that per capita, there is just a little bit more suffering on that side than most Americans are aware of. I truly doubt that you would write the above article had you witnessed the physical and psychological destruction that so many live with in local communities that are literally drained of all basic resources. I am in not comparing the suffering of those overseas with the suffering of those within the U.S. – such an exercise would be futile, as we both know. I am just suggesting that you refrain from making an equally “snide dismissal” of homeless populations (and organizations) elsewhere if you have chosen to focus your own efforts on the situation stateside.
    .
    PS. “Honey” was meant to lighten the condescension, if anything – it has nothing at all to do with sex (I call men “honey” as well, and I don’t believe it has a gender connotation – this probably differs regionally). I had originally written “sister” but changed it as I wasn’t sure of the gender of “dirtyv6.”

  4. Raphaela says:

    Hi Laura,
    .
    Perhaps, you’re right. I definitely took your suggestion that I “rise to the occasion” as an implication that I should have adopted this kid. Upon rereading it, I see how it could have been interpreted differently, but I originally understood your admission that I couldn’t adopt children all over the world as a suggestion that I ought to have adopted this one and since you didn’t qualify what “rise to the occasion” meant, I assumed you were referring to the comment I made about dreaming about adopting him. I agree, there are better things that I likely could have done, had I known about them at the time. But I didn’t, because I was a naive 18 year old, and that is basically the point of this whole article. I hope others can learn from that.
    .
    I didn’t make blanket statements about donating to orphanages, and the campaign I linked to wasn’t calling out all orphanages – they provide some pretty helpful tips for people to determine how reputable any given orphanage is. You quoted them as saying: “[when donating to orphanages] you may be fuelling a system which exploits children” [emphasis mine]. I don’t think you are trying to argue with that statement . You just don’t think that there are more viable alternatives, or ways to get people involved if they don’t have a personal connection to the place. And maybe that is true, but I don’t think that’s a valid excuse for participating in an exploitative system (and any program – note that I’m not talking about all orphanages here – which allows unvetted foreigners to pop into children’s homes and come and go willy-nilly is exploitative). I’m not nearly as cynical as you are, though – I specifically called out “travel anyways” as a piece of advice for people who are interested in doing good. You’re right that visiting foreign countries will influence people to donate a lot more than an advert on TV would. I don’t think this has to be accomplished through voluntouring, though – when you spend time in a new place and speak with new people, their suffering becomes real to you. You know that you don’t need to visit an orphanage in Cambodia before making efforts to help Cambodian children.
    .
    And while I didn’t make any comments about people donating to orphanages in my original post (it wasn’t the focus of the original post at all, but since you’ve redirected it – and since I think these are important topics for us to engage – I’ll bite) I’m going to, now. I agree with the link I posted – the best thing we can probably do for third world children is support efforts to hold communities and families together. Also from the page I linked:
    .
    “Investing in the future of Cambodian children is a valuable contribution. Investing in Cambodian families is also a valuable pursuit. Projects that aim towards strengthening community-based work provides the conditions under which alternative options may be offered to children and their families. A sustainable contribution should be aimed at breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and exploitation. Orphanages do not offer a long-term sustainable response to the situation of vulnerable children. By investing in families and communities we are laying the foundation for better conditions for children.”
    .
    At its best, couldn’t you agree that donating to orphanages is a band-aid solution? It in no way helps smash the systems which are keeping poor people poor. I agree with you that there are many good orphanages out there, and many good people who work in them. Even the organizations I’m linking in this post, which are far more critical of people donating to orphanages than I am, recognize that donating to orphanages is not always harmful, so long as you are making steps to ensure that the orphanage you’re supporting is not participating in child exploitation. Obviously orphanages serve an essential need, but they should be an absolute last resort, not an appealing solution when parents can’t afford to raise their kids. Take a look at this article:
    .
    “But, inadvertently, well-intentioned volunteers have helped to create a surge in the number of residential care homes as impoverished parents are tempted into giving up their children in response to promises of a Western-style upbringing and education. Despite a period of prosperity in the country, the number of children in orphanages has more than doubled in the past decade, and over 70 per cent of the estimated 10,000 ‘orphans’ have at least one living parent.” http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/peopleandpower/2012/05/201252243030438171.html
    .
    I know this is just one country, but it looks to be the norm, not an exception. This article by Save The Children states that worldwide, four out of five children in orphanages have at least one living parent: http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/sites/default/files/docs/Keeping_Children_Out_of_Harmful_Institutions_Final_20.11.09_1.pdf
    .
    So, basically: the majority of children are not in orphanages because they have no parents. They are in orphanages because their parents cannot afford them. So yes, absolutely – orphanages are important for children who are most in need, and we should not turn a blind eye to them. But I’m unconvinced that the solutions you propose are the right ones.
    .
    By the way, I very much appreciate that you changed your tone in this comment, and it makes me much happier to engage with you (and maybe learn something from you). I also think you’re backtracking a bit regarding the homeless people in the United States comment. I advised people to volunteer at their local soup kitchen and you responded with this: ” Or, we could all plant trees in our backyards, continue the pub crawls and forget that there might be a few people over the ocean slightly more needy than those in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Just a thought.” It looked to me like this comment had two purposes: to dismiss the suffering of homeless people in Bridgeport, who, for example, might rely on soup kitchens, and to imply that I am myopic and unable to understand that people in foreign lands are suffering. In your more recent comment, you said: “I am in not comparing the suffering of those overseas with the suffering of those within the U.S. – such an exercise would be futile, as we both know,” but it seemed like that is exactly what you were doing with that Bridgeport snipe. I know there is a lot of global suffering that many of us turn a blind eye too – This article was not, in any way, an argument that we should be ignoring that suffering, and if any readers took it like that, then clearly I didn’t do my job right.
    .
    Finally, you asked why I didn’t create a vetting program. I agree, that would be a great thing to have. As I said, it didn’t really occur to me until later how sorely lacking that was. However, I really don’t think you understand that this criticism was mainly directed towards for-profit voluntourism agencies which wouldn’t want to institute a vetting program even if I created one, because it would disagree with their bottom line. I was specifically calling out those organizations which exist to funnel as many willing payers as they possibly can. But, I also think you missed the other primary criticism – nice as it would be to initiate a vetting program, I still think the idea that privileged American teenagers can go and save the third world is informed by ugly imperialist notions, and we need to re-examine that.

  5. laura says:

    Hi Raphaela,

    I think it’s fair to say that we agree on far more than we disagree about, though I believe your original article could be easily misinterpreted as a warning against most voluntourism experiences rather than a warning about some exploitative organizations within a landscape of diverse opportunities (statements like “voluntourism is usually misguided and ineffective” give me this impression). In an effort to not draw this out unnecessarily, let me respond directly to a few of your key comments:
    .
    R: “You just don’t think that there are more viable alternatives, or ways to get people involved if they don’t have a personal connection to the place. And maybe that is true, but I don’t think that’s a valid excuse for participating in an exploitative system (and any program – note that I’m not talking about all orphanages here – which allows unvetted foreigners to pop into children’s homes and come and go willy-nilly is exploitative).”
    .
    I agree we should take pains to make sure we don’t participate in exploitative organizations, but if we find ourselves already working within one, we should do our best to solve the problems we encounter (ie, create vetting programs when we can to help understaffed orgs). As citizens of a globalized world who inevitably participate in international economic systems daily (systems which do not often benefit orphans in impoverished nations, and often rob them of resources and opportunities they would have otherwise) I personally think it is important to meet these challenges head-on through direct involvement. Of course, not everyone needs to jump on a plane and go abroad. But I don’t see much sense in maligning most voluntourism based on a handful of experiences.
    .
    “I’m not nearly as cynical as you are, though – I specifically called out “travel anyways” as a piece of advice for people who are interested in doing good. ”
    .
    I have no idea where your random insult here is coming from – I am encouraging travel, not discouraging it. And I agree that travel is broadening with or without official voluntourism. Never said anything contrary to that.
    .
    “At its best, couldn’t you agree that donating to orphanages is a band-aid solution? It in no way helps smash the systems which are keeping poor people poor.”
    .
    Yes – exactly. That’s why we can’t expect the world (especially the “developing” world whose problems have very directly been caused in large part by the imperialist actions and laws of the “developed” world) to sort out their own problems while we sit back and focus solely on the homefront. Ignoring the problem from home won’t help, and just donating overseas won’t help. So what can we do? Get involved on a deeper level.
    .
    “But, inadvertently, well-intentioned volunteers have helped to create a surge in the number of residential care homes as impoverished parents are tempted into giving up their children in response to promises of a Western-style upbringing and education. Despite a period of prosperity in the country, the number of children in orphanages has more than doubled in the past decade, and over 70 per cent of the estimated 10,000 ‘orphans’ have at least one living parent.”
    .
    Here your website is getting awfully close to making the assumption that we know better than the child’s (allegedly living) parent where the child belongs. Having lived very close to many of these situations, I am only going to say that this situation is far more complicated than you’re boiling it down to, and we shouldn’t let a website dictate our actions and opinions on the myriad of problems and organizations existing to address these problems worldwide.
    .
    “So yes, absolutely – orphanages are important for children who are most in need, and we should not turn a blind eye to them. But I’m unconvinced that the solutions you propose are the right ones.”
    .
    My comments responding to your article were far from proposed solutions. My main goal is to advocate for personal, on-the-ground interaction with people and problems which we cannot begin to understand through our computer screens from our “first world” homes. Because your article states that voluntoursim is “usually” a problem based on a few examples of what seem to me to be inept volunteering, I felt the need to respond so that those who have never volunteered before and might actually make a positive impact don’t become dissuaded or take the easy out and “just travel” using hostels and hotels, and rarely getting involved with locals in a real way. The only solution I am advocating for within this very limited medium is direct involvement in a way which requires more research, thought and effort than “support local businesses” (an idea which is great, but eating at the local falafel stand pales in comparison with real community involvement).
    .
    “I also think you’re backtracking a bit regarding the homeless people in the United States comment. ”
    .
    This is slightly absurd as I never made a comment homeless people in the US – you did. I gave an example picking a location out of a hat for purposes of illustration (just as I did Zimbabwe, and the falafel stand above) to make a point. There is nothing I am aware of which specifically ties Bridgeport, Connecticut to homeless people over any other location in the US. I said nothing at all about the homeless – you brought that up in a pretty obvious straw-man argument. I don’t disregard the US homeless, they face tremendous struggles which we should address. We agree on that, let’s not waste our time here debating the obvious.
    .
    “I know there is a lot of global suffering that many of us turn a blind eye too – This article was not, in any way, an argument that we should be ignoring that suffering, and if any readers took it like that, then clearly I didn’t do my job right.”
    .
    Great. Happy to hear that was not your goal, and to get this clarification.
    .
    “Nice as it would be to initiate a vetting program, I still think the idea that privileged American teenagers can go and save the third world is informed by ugly imperialist notions, and we need to re-examine that.”
    .
    I don’t think many privileged American teenagers will come anywhere close to realizing their privilege without traveling and getting involved in communities around the world through direct action programs. In my experience, the vast majority of travelers do not interact in a very significant way with local people – in between hotels, cafes, and meeting other travelers, it’s often not on the agenda. Your article above (before all of the disclaimers in our little conversation here) seems to me to further discourage involvement which, while flawed, can actively spur tourists into action and make an incredible difference in their lives as well as the lives of those they connect with. I would agree with an article encouraging Americans to not see voluntourism as the only answer — however your many examples seemed to indicate that it’s better to ignore problems (you left the child you connected with rather than get further involved, you left the program without helping them create a vetting system [perhaps if you tried you would have realized that they wouldn't object], you dismissed environmental voluntourism programs as “complete tripe” before recommending that we “travel anyways” — thus causing the carbon emissions but not suggesting that we offset them in any way). This is no solution to ugly imperialist notions. This is an easy way to let ourselves off the hook for the ugly imperialist actions which continue to this day on the global scale, and which we can’t begin to address without serious on-the-ground involvement.

  6. Lehua says:

    We do not believe and did not state that international volunteering is all bad. We suggest in the above article that volunteers either commit to an extended period to volunteer, or volunteer where the already have skills and training. This article isn’t about volunteerism, it is about volunTOURISM, usually short, one-off trips sold to young kids where they can work for anywhere from two weeks to two months. Basically the definition of “play and throw away” tourism which you yourself derided. That is the distilled thesis of our article, read it again without preconceptions if you didn’t get that the first time. A friend put it quite eloquently: “we need to admit that small scale effort produces small scale results, and that it is illogical to go to great effort (work is mass over distance, so traveling is incredible effort) to get to a location to do small scale stuff. It is inconsistent to do that, carbon production aside. To do good on a local scale, work locally. To do global good, work globally. Which does not mean travelling globally to work locally, but to work globally to address the problems causing global issues.”
    .
    You seem to think that we are the only people who are critical of voluntourism, and therefore we are a danger to any person with good in their hearts who stumbles onto our site. Not so, this is a a backlash against volunteer-tourism which extends to people far more experienced and more widely read than us. In addition to the links Raphi has already posted, here are a few examples. http://goodintents.org/ is an extensive site that (in addition to advocating donor awareness) catalogs problems and harms that arise from voluntourism, and offers some alternatives.. Here is a BBC article about the problem: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/6945370.stm. Here is a short documentary on orphans and voluntourism: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=-hf_snNO9X8. Here is an article on Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniela-papi/voluntourism_b_1525532.html. Here is an article from MIT: http://mitpsc.mit.edu/globalchallenge/?p=335 (and, by the way, if you want to be involved in an debate where you and Raphi aren’t the only participants, the comments section of this last article is a good place)
    .
    We are actually quite lenient on international volunteers, compared to Mexican Ivan Illich, who argues quite eloquently that all US volunteers should be withdrawn from Mexico: http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm. To quote a fellow blogger, “When considering these service abroad opportunities, it’s crucial to examine one’s own motivations. If you only want to go to be able to say “I made a difference,” then stay home. Voluntouring should be more about the making a difference part, not about the “I.” The developing world should not be considered a playground for the wealthy who want to do something.” ( http://twodollarchallenge.org/2011/10/31/voluntourism/ ). Goodintents does a great job of illustrating this point by suggesting a thought experiment: imagine you live in a ghetto or the rust belt or an Indian reservation in the US, and an Chinese student comes to work on a community revitalization project: http://goodintents.org/common-aid-problems/if-this-were-you-what-skills-and-abilities-would-you-want-from-a-voluntourist.
    .
    I’m disappointed that the level of debate has descended again into condescension and out-of-context nitpicking in your last post, your middle post was quite well spoken. Don’t expect any more responses from me at least. I’m sure you’ll post a rebuttal, but in any case, if your mission is to reach anyone other than me and Raphi, posting here seems somewhat masturbatory.

  7. voluntyrannosaur says:

    dirtyv6 – these are some things I did wrong when I was a teenager, hopefully you can learn from them and not make the same mistakes

    laura – WHY DID YOU DO THE WRONG THING

  8. laura says:

    Wow. I wasn’t expecting this transform into an insult war. I suppose you two are friends of Raphi? :)
    .
    Lehua – thanks for the many links. Perhaps if the article had made a distinction between volunteerism and voluntourism (the definition of which changes depending on who you ask and what you read – I will save you the link barage) we wouldn’t be having this discussion. My point was very far from “all voluntourism is good, always” — and of course I don’t think you are the only folks critical of voluntourism. Just suggesting that we critique our own actions, and ask more of the average traveler (just like your links do) instead of drawing sweeping generalizations about complex systems of global engagement.
    .
    Voluntyrannosaur – haha. Hopefully there’s a little more to that in this discussion, but as it’s degrading this fast, I’ll leave it at that.

  9. Raphaela says:

    You could probably guess that Lehua is my friend because we created this blog and wrote the articles together. I’m not sure who the other poster is but probably a friend since this blog is a neophyte and it’s mostly our friends reading it.

    I think it has degraded that fast, as you’ve repeatedly accused us of saying and doing things we have not said and done (for instance, pub crawls. My pub crawl remark was a little joke about the flippancy with which many people undertake voluntouring. It was not about me – I am far too cheap to do pub crawls). However, feel free to visit any time! A friend of the blog is a friend of mine.

  10. bloggerincroatia says:

    Great read, dirtyvagrants, and entertaining comments section. Luckily, I was too selfish with my time and money as a privileged, traveling youth (who also did not pub crawl) to end up a voluntourist. I appreciate you sharing and critiquing your past choices publicly. A brave thing to do. Will resist the urge to make snarky, virtually anonymous comments about your detractor. Cheers, and look forward to more content from you two.

    • Fromnorthoftheborder says:

      IMy first language is french and though I can read english just fine, I’m not quite as good at writing it. There will probably be many mistake in my comment and I hope it’s content is not misunderstood.

      I simply wished to agree to some of the points on this blog by my own experiences. I have done some volonteer work while traveling and have notice just like you have that we volonteers are not that usefull.

      I was volonteering in China for 3 months but put together the lack of mastery in their language, and my ineficiency (especially at first), I must agree that we do not help much. I was working in an orphanage and I think the most important contribution I’ve made was sweeping the floor (since I know I did not do any damage in said action).

      I was already traveling there so it did not cost me much in travel expense and did not find it through an agency but by people I meet and even so, the money I’ve used for food only while there seem to be more then the salary of some of the employes (I have not yet understood how they could live on it but this goes to prove that my money would have done more good then my activity there).

      I also understood something from my stay. I was inform that the agency absorbed most of the money the «foreigners» whereas the orphanage (in this case) recieve almost nothing. (about 5% of the money, visa and travels not included)

      I’ve seen plenty of people pass by for a short while and even worse are usually the groups who come for about 3 days (and visit a bit on one of these days). In most cases, they where more interested in each others compagny then in actually helping. They took pictures with the childrens and where not interested in cleaning or actual work with the child. Take a picture and take the cuter kids (who are liked and picked by everyone. They do not lack attention) whereas the kids with physical deformations and mental andicaps where usually left alone on the side.

      Many people spoke no mandarin at all and did not try to communicate with the personnel in charge of the kids (who did not know how to speak any other language). Many had good heart (I hope this includes me) but I can’t say we where much real help.

      I noticed that some people come to visit orphanage as you mentionned, but I also notived that most of them already gave money to the organisation and simply wanted to make sure that it was well spend. It was not as much tourism as verification of spending. It was not the most effecient way money wise but they where not there to take pictures of the kids, more of the building itself and the material. This, again, is my own experience of those who simply visit the orphanage and do not come for volonteering.

      I did notice that some doctors where very usefull, so I would have to agree with competent workers working on their field of work where being usefull. There was also a good contribution from a construction worker which was there for 3 months when they were building a new orphanage. They where all the more usefull since most of them spoke mandarin, allowing communication with the locals.

      I would therefore agree with most if not all the conclusion from this site. I do understand that the biggest difference I made was for myself and I know it might be egocentric of my part, but I think it gives me a better understanding of the way it works. A little like you, this experience did give me an idea of how it worked and I volonteered much more in my own community since then, where i know I can do lasting good.

      Thank you for posting this, it’s very interesting and it’s your message on couchsurfing in the volonteer section that got me here. It’s really posted at the best place for discussion (and maybe controversy)

      A pleasure reading your post!

      François Nadeau

    • dirtyv6 says:

      Thank you for your comment, François! It was really enriching to read about your experiences and I very much appreciate you sharing your insights with us. I think you’re spot on, and you brought up some important points which I left out of the main article.

      Best,

      Raphaela

  11. Well thought and well written.

    It goes without saying, there are lots of issues with Voluntourism. Voluntourism is awash in bee-ess.

    Really like your bit about ‘do it local’. That is so absolutely true.

    The reality is people are always going to travel to volunteer. It’s fun. It’s an adventure. Even if it’s just a break from the ‘pub crawl’. Given a proper framework, traveling volunteers can make a positive contribution.

    It is the responsibility of credible voluntourism offerings/orgs to direct that foreign-volunteer-energy to where it is needed in a functional, ethical and sustainable manner.

    Peace, Love and Buenas Cosas,

    Buenas Cosas
    Serving Community & Nature©
    http://www.BuenasCosas.org
    Language Study & Volunteer Opportunities
    Registered Guatemalan Non-Profit
    501(c)3 Non-Profit in-process

  12. Lehua says:

    Definitely agree. Obviously there is no way our post will really stop people from wanting to travel abroad to volunteer, because usually people are volunteering in order to travel, not the other way around. All we can really hope to do is raise awareness about some of the bigger problems and pitfalls, and, like you say, try to funnel people toward reputable and responsible organizations.

  13. Sam says:

    it takes time and energy to read and write and then to think about what you have written and then to reply again to what someone has replied.
    If existence have given you this energy then use if in your life to create something beautiful to create something from your heart, something which can touch the heart of others and make them realize about the more important things in life.
    Do what your heart tells you and listen to only your inner self, the calling from within is divine the good intention is essential.

  14. Hello, I am an artist, volunteer want to experience something related to art and society. I am interested in any sort of volunteering esp teaching art or craft. I have some local exp. as well as volunteering in kibbutz in Israel for 7 months.please let me know if there is some spaces for me .
    Regards
    ALAK j PATHAK.
    sculptor/evironmental artist.

  15. thatOrphan says:

    After reading the back and forth between the writer of this blog and a reader who left a comment, I just have to shake my head. You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t. At the end of it all, nothing is worse than doing nothing.

    As an orphan of India. I thank God everyday that some caring white people in the USA spent their hard earned money and brought me to the USA.

    I have been back to India and it is hell on Earth. Nothing is worse than seeing people with money blowing it, when you are literally starving to death. And the only thing that is below that is seeing these two people co-exist and no one bats an eyelash.

    But basically, my point is, both of you are right. Something needs to be done. Sending money is good, but volunteering is good too. I’m not saying shovel elephant shit for 100 USD is the best use of your time, but at the same time, I wish there were more people like my parents who didn’t just “plant a tree in their back yard” and do nothing.

    It seems that the author of this blog has a biased view of volunteering. There are a myriad other ways to volunteer globally. And regardless of what you do in this world, yes, you will leave a carbon footprint. But the way I see it, as long as you are not Britney Spears flying to Colombia for a “fresh cup of Colombian coffee” I think it’s safe to say that it’s ok you travel on a plane to help those “orphans/rainforest animals/etc..”.

    So, help the orphans, take those pictures, and spread the awareness. As the saying goes in medicine “primum non nocere” which means “first, do no harm”, the same could be said for volunteering.

    • dirtyv6 says:

      Thanks for the reply. I don’t think I have a biased view of volunteering, though – I stated in my post that there are absolutely good volunteer programs abroad out there. I’m not sure why this point is lost on so many readers. The volunteer programs we spoke out against were specifically the for-profit, short-term programs that exploit locals and drop untrained westerners in new settings without giving them any sort of background in the local culture or language. These programs are pretty indefensible, IMO.

  16. geneveiveharper says:

    What a great blog! Thanks especially for the bits about busking and traveling solo as a woman. (As for this post being lost on so many readers: you did, in fact, project in your first sentence that you would offend a great many people. There’s framing for you!)

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