Volunteering Gone Wrong: The Ugly Side of “Voluntourism”


EspañolAs I wrote in my last post, my experience over the past year living in Honduras and working with impoverished communities has initiated a shift in my perception of international poverty alleviation efforts. What was initially an extrospective process has since developed into considerable introspection on my part, as I reconsider the role I want to play working in the international development field. That being said, my perspective remains limited, and my understanding of a highly interconnected array of complex factors is developing; but it is developing in a way that I once never thought it would.

My first experience living and working abroad came during the summer following my junior year of college when I served in a capacity that has come to be known as a “voluntourist.” The voluntourism “industry” has exploded in recent years. It is operated by both NGO’s and for-profit organizations.

Participants pay for the opportunity to live and work in a developed country. In my case, I paid a couple thousand dollars to spend two weeks living in San Jose, Costa Rica, while volunteering at an afterschool program for low-income students. The experience was personally formative, no doubt, but I now question the impact I actually had; and whether similar experiences being had by more and more people each year may actually be to the long-term detriment of impoverished communities.

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Before working in the developing world, I had heard of the “white savior complex,” but I had always brushed it aside as a cynical excuse used by those not willing to get their hands dirty. My view has changed. Entire impoverished generations are being raised in a world where light-skinned foreigners arrive with shoes in hand, playing with local children for a short period of time, only to disappear and leave medical clinics in their wake.

Source: IACT.in.

This perpetuates an image of helplessness that many Westerners have of the developing world, while promoting a relationship of dependency between the two regions.

This patriarchal arrangement acts as an impediment to the prospects of long-term development. The opportunity for domestic actors to rise to fill a societal void is lost. If foreign actors adopt the role of providing basic needs, when will domestic civil society, entrepreneurs, and government be given the opportunity to provide the same? Local institutions cannot compete in a market where laborers are paying to work, rather than being paid to work. Having people pay you to fulfill your organization’s mission — instead of the other way around — is an excellent business model. However, there is a subtler economic variable at play here.

You do not want to provide a financial incentive for a societal ill. If entire organizations are funded by people paying to build clinics, play with orphans, or plant trees, then said organizations have a vested interest in the survival of these symptoms of poverty. Volunteers are paying to be a part of underdevelopment. There is no incentive for progress.

The common retort to this argument is that domestic actors would have a similar disincentive to eliminate the symptoms of poverty. This is not so. Voluntourism organizations are appealing because voluntourists want to be a part of solving a problem. If the problem is solved, the flow of monetary and human capital is cut off. On the other hand, if given the opportunity to fill the role of voluntourism organizations, the public and private sector of a developing country benefit if development occurs. Businesses prosper from increased consumer spending as income levels rise, and governments see increased funding from rising tax revenues, all the while reducing public expenditures as the need for provision of basic social services declines.

As foreigners, we often see the problems of poorer countries as endemic to the country itself. In reality, the situation is far more nuanced. As with problems in our own countries, these issues are the result of a variety of factors, ranging from poor governance, political infighting, or the role of international financial institutions. Paying to be a part of this arrangement amounts to a subsidy of the maintenance of an unfavorable status quo.

Voluntourism isn’t without its benefits. Primary among them is cross-cultural exchange. The benefit here is a two-way street. Volunteers are able to get firsthand experience of life in the developing world, beyond the common perception born from textbooks and UNICEF commercials. Host communities will also have the opportunity to live and work with Westerners, and hopefully challenge stereotypes perpetuated by mass media that now extends to nearly all corners of the globe.

Both parties are granted the invaluable opportunity to either shatter or completely reinforce their preconceived notions. However, this benefit can be had by both parties without perpetuating a volatile dependent relationship, eliminating opportunities for development driven by domestic institutions, crowding out local labor, and creating an incentive for the maintenance of a state of underdevelopment.

It seems a solution to all of this is to simply take the volunteer out of voluntourism. Just visit these places and have a good time. Some of the most impoverished countries in the world are home to phenomenal environmental and cultural experiences that can come at relatively low-cost. For half the price of being of mild benefit — and potential detriment — to a foreign community, you could immerse yourself in an entirely new world, and have a hell of a time doing so. You will be playing an integral role in eliminating the notion of underdeveloped regions of the world as inferior and “unvisitable.”

Money spent will go directly to the local economy, promoting a sustainable source of homegrown economic and societal development over the long haul. Governments and businesses will then have an incentive to ensure a stable and secure political, economic, and social climate. Dollars will then be lured by safe streets, environmental beauty, and access to opportunities to enjoy local culture, rather than using poverty as a commodity to be sold.

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