Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, is depicted as doing good for less fortunate communities abroad. It perpetuates the idea that the global South is in desperate need of saving, and that Western do-gooders can come in short term periods to solve their issues. The trips continuously draw on the idea that these countries are incapable of escaping mass poverty and suffering without developed, or Western, intervention.
The resource curse, also known as the paradox of the plenty, refers to countries rich in natural resources yet lacking distinct economic growth, democracy, and general development. The origins of this phenomenon are deeply-rooted in colonialism. Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible, and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible, and they had the land.” When people in Western countries venture to so-called developing nations for the purpose of volunteering, the historical implications relate to centuries of stealing land and evangelist missions. While this may not be the intention of the volunteer, the embedded history of these trips still remains.
Orphanage tourism proves to be one of the most harmful disciplines within the voluntourism network. The desire to volunteer in orphanages and help supposedly destitute children has actually resulted in many children being kidnapped or trafficked and deliberately placed in orphanages to fuel demand. A study conducted by the Government of Nepal in collaboration with the United Nations showed that the majority of children in orphanages in Nepal are not orphans by definition, and an estimated two out of three children in orphanages have at least one living parent. But, just as tourism is often a profitable industry, so is voluntourism. Children living in poor conditions elicits a sympathetic emotional response which boosts funding and donations. These funds and donations, though, will not be utilized to improve these children’s lives, but will rather line another’s pockets so they can continue to make a profit. Not only does this leave children extremely vulnerable to abuse, but it also has a multitude of negative effects on their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
Of the registered orphanages in Nepal, up to ninety percent are located in the five main tourist districts. From the perspective of a foreigner, there then appears to be an increased number of destitute children and need for aid. Children have unfortunately become profitable commodities in many places, including Nepal. Awareness in this situation is key to understanding and observing whether your intervention is actually helpful or playing to a saviour complex.
It would be significantly more productive to view these types of trips simply as cultural exchanges whereby values and assets are explored rather than missions to help the poor. A major issue with these trips rely on organizations pocketing more money than they are advertising. But, on a smaller scale, the intent of the trips are also tarnished by volunteers with skewed perceptions of wanting to do feel-good projects with no positive influence on the targeted communities. Humanitarian trips are also often initiated in high school environments where students have no applicable specialized skills necessary for these projects. These high schoolers aren’t doctors who can assist in health crises or engineers who can effectively help build houses and roads sustainably. Instead, in many instances, local workers will have to do twice as much work to rebuild what the volunteers did ineffectively the first time around. In the worst of cases, foreign volunteers might unknowingly be taking paying jobs away from locals who rely on that income. This can drive-up homelessness and crippling debt in foreign communities.
Voluntourism as a concept and a practice can be tricky to navigate but the best thing to do is understand your own skills and do your research. Volunteering is phenomenal and, if done responsibly, can be an unforgettable experience that benefits all of those involved. Be aware of your intentions and think about whether getting involved will assist. At the end of the day these trips are meant to help others, not look good on your resume, or serve as a dinner party conversation starter. Please remember that.