Voluntourism: Should you be ashamed to volunteer abroad?

January 19, 2018 | Christopher Dainton

The other day, I came across an interesting blog post critical of voluntourism . It made some good points. I thought about it, rubbed my chin, and then thoughtfully responded:

“You raise some great points about the conflicts of interest in many programs, and the need for introspection by volunteers themselves prior to traveling. But I think that rather than pushing for a culture of shame among these mostly well-meaning volunteers, we need to have positive conversations on how to make voluntourism better and avoid questionable practices.”

The response was almost immediate. It encapsulated what I see as a massive change in the perception of international volunteers – first limited to academics, but now trickling down to the general public.

“Note that I have taken out Mr. Dainton’s web link to his own voluntourism organization. I think shame absolutely must be used – well-meaning people need to know just how destructive they can be, even when they are well-meaning.”

Voluntourism and medical service trips
The danger of treating international volunteers as the enemy

Got it? Blame and shame volunteers.

Taken by itself, the salty response is irrelevant. But it is emblematic of an increasingly common, and instinctively negative reaction to the phenomenon of short-term volunteering abroad.

And why not? The potential harms are becoming increasingly well known. They range from unethical photography, to untrained volunteers practicing above their skill set, to organizations often rendering services entirely outside of local health systems. The results have inspired numerous articles dripping with cynicism . Then have even inspired a satirical Instagram page for a character known as Barbie Saviour.

The concerns are part of a growing and necessary movement aimed at mitigating the harms of voluntourism. They are also vulnerable to a bandwagon effect, as well as to mean-spiritedness.

Voluntourism in Peru
Who’s to blame, and who should be shamed?

Well, clearly not the volunteers.

The existing paradigm provides little to no reliable information to students and professionals (my own experience 7 years ago), and limited oversight of volunteer activities. Voluntourism is
an industry dominated by enormous commercial players like International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ). The results are both sad and obvious. Blaming the vulnerable gap year volunteer is a little like blaming my grandfather for smoking.

For smaller players and church groups, cultivating an environment of blame and shame has another effect. Rather than aiming to constructively improve their practices and incorporate them into existing health systems – well, they’re more likely to check out of the process entirely and view global health advocates as the enemy.

Voluntourism in Dominican Republic
Voluntourism: What message are we sending?

The message heard is that volunteering abroad will be met with disdain. Whether deserved or not, your motives will be questioned. Shame and stigma are powerful social tools. They don’t lend themselves to subtlety and interpretation. There is a profound difference between shaming potentially exploitive organizations, and shaming volunteers themselves.

Before blaming a 22 year-old inculcated in a social media culture for framing her Instagram with potentially exploitive photography, first ask: were they provided with guidelines and pre-departure training? How was this enforced?

The message to volunteers should be “Be careful”. But increasingly, the message heard is “Don’t go”.

The message is that your good faith efforts will be met with resistance, scorn, and perhaps even hostility. Not to mention that reliable information on how to avoid ending up on a bad trip is hard to come by. Judging by the entirely inaccurate description of Medical Service Trip as a “voluntourism organization”, even if you are successful in finding one, it’s still no guarantee that you won’t be subject to a ritual shaming.

The message to young people is that rather than finding a high quality volunteer opportunity, it would be better to just hike to Machu Picchu and spend a few days inebriated in the Cusco main plaza.

Colleagues working on global health project
And what’s wrong with that?

We’re all poorer in a world where those intercultural connections are broken, or never made. Similarly, the benefits that accrue to the volunteer do not exist in a vacuum. They include language, cultural learning, and genuine connections on another side of the planet. Moreover, it requires a modicum of effort to step outside one’s comfort zone, something that those with the energy of youth are willing to do, and which becomes increasingly difficult with age.

We often wonder why an earthquake, or terrorist attack in the developing world is eighth page news. The same event in Paris dominates the news cycle for weeks. This is why. When we have no reference point, no personal experience of places outside North America, empathy becomes difficult, if not impossible.

There is certainly an awkwardness inherent in travel and volunteering abroad. As any young adult can tell you, it is prone to error. As such, the first response to a volunteer who is doing it all wrong should not be shame, but “How can I help?”

Cultivating an atmosphere of shame among well-meaning young people may not be the most effective way to achieve the change we’re all looking for.




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