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How to avoid the voluntourism trap

Volunteering is a fulfilling activity that brings people together, constructs positive change, and strives to solve a problem by lending helping hands in places that need it. However, in an increasingly globalized and technological society, attempts can often become twisted and marred to the point where they don’t often resemble the original goals of volunteering at all. Companies increasingly advertise to young people, especially Americans, a trendy and fun way to volunteer abroad that includes excursions or vacation-like experiences. Many people see this as the perfect situation, thinking, “It allows me to volunteer but also have fun, and it’s a great excuse for me to travel and would also look amazing on a resume!” But the question remains – is this really volunteering?

This trend is commonly referred to as voluntourism, a mix between volunteering and tourism. It stretches the reality of volunteering into being more about the gain of cultural capital for the voluntourist – such as the ability to put the experience down on a resume – and less about actually helping others or striving towards sustainable change that will make an actual difference in the lives of others.

Through one of my classes, I embarked on a weeklong service trip to the Dominican Republic to volunteer as an English tutor. Little did I know what a mess that week would be and that I was getting sucked into the voluntourism trap without realizing it. The organization we went through was adamant that the kids we spent time with needed English in order to succeed in life, yet we were unqualified and unprepared to actually teach them anything, especially in the scope of a week. Luckily, I was traveling with a group of intelligent individuals who recognized this issue, and we were able to reflect on this experience as a common misstep for people who want to volunteer and discuss what could be improved for the next year’s class.

In order to sort through the experiences, organizations, and opportunities readily available and advertised online to find a fulfilling and helpful volunteering opportunity, here is a helpful list of tips and questions to run through during your search.

1. Find what you are passionate about

Volunteering is a great way for many people to give back, gain experience in a field, and work with others. What are you passionate about? How could you transform your passions into helping others? Working for what you love motivates you and makes the experience even more special. 

2. DO. YOUR. RESEARCH.

What sort of organization is this opportunity or project through? Is this a company, a nonprofit, an NGO? What are their goals, what is their mission statement? Unfortunately, some organizations or companies do not share your passion for volunteer work and can be more profit-oriented. But a lot can be determined from a website, including photos. What kind of people are they recruiting? Be aware of the perception displayed regarding the people they are supposedly helping. Do the photos give you the vibe that a group of people is being exoticized in some manner? Remember that volunteering is about helping people who are in need, not about taking photos with kids in an orphanage.

This is an example of what I mean by ‘cultural capital,’ promoting your own social mobility through these types of channels. During your research, also ask yourself if the project is actually beneficial to the region or group of people involved. Is it working towards solving a problem that the people there are actually in need of assistance with – a problem that they actually label as a problem and welcome the help?

I’ve personally fallen into this trap. Granted, it was a service trip through a class that I took, but it made a huge impact on me, how I viewed myself, how I reflected on my place in the world and my own privilege, and about the tricky world of voluntourism. It also completely rerouted the class itself into discussing voluntourism and participating in a service-learning trip that would actually benefit someone other than ourselves or a particular company.

3. How can you best help?

In all honesty, although this is a travel magazine, sometimes the best way you can help is by volunteering in your own community. Are you passionate about youth education? Chances are, there are schools in your area that would benefit from a tutor or donations of school supplies. That being said, wherever you are looking at volunteering, especially abroad, ask yourself three important questions.

Will the money I spend getting myself there to be a volunteer be better spent as a donation instead?

Sometimes the costs of flying halfway around the world, housing, food, etc. – although they offer you deals – far outweigh the value of your physical presence. If you are passionate about a cause, found an organization that you believe to be serving the best interests of people in need, but think this may be the case, consider monetary or supply donations instead. Organizations appreciate if you reach out and ask them what would be most helpful, and even often have lists on their websites. Be especially careful in your research that these donations will actually go towards the cause and not towards someone’s salary or profits. Use your best judgement.

Am I qualified to provide this type of help?

Many voluntourist traps advocate English teaching in a foreign country as a form of volunteering. This is usually a flag to conduct more research on the organization and why they chose English language teaching as their focus, what they aim to achieve, and if the students even want or need this teaching. This is not always a bad thing, as there are good and bad organizations and opportunities. In addition to this, ask yourself if you would be comfortable with this volunteering task. Just because I am a native English speaker, does that qualify me to be a teacher? In my experience, I was highly unqualified and the kids that I was to ‘teach’ did not get anything out of it.

Will the duration of my stay interrupt the progress of the overall project?

If I am providing a service, will coming into the program for a week and then leaving afterwards affect those who I am serving? Will my absence leave a gap or somehow work against the actual goals of the volunteering opportunity or organization? Will the duration of my stay actually allow me to help, create change, or forward goals? Regarding my accidental dip into the world of voluntourism, even if I was qualified to teach English and the kids needed and/or wanted to learn it, the fact that I was only going for a week mean that the lasting effects would be few.

4. Who will benefit more from this experience?

This is the point where you and I need to get real. If you are reading this, if you follow this publication, you most likely enjoy traveling- but just because you have always wanted to visit Thailand or think that the Dominican Republic is a beautiful destination is not a good enough excuse to feed into voluntourism. Remember the point of volunteering in the first place. If you want to go on vacation, by all means make it happen and go! But if you are making the commitment to a cause or organization, you must go all the way with it. If the experience is more catered to you as the volunteer than the actual service or people who you are supposed to be aiding, then it is simply not worth it. Do not fall into the trap of treating volunteering as a gain in your cultural capital, your employability or your world knowledge. Volunteer for the right reasons.

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