We Can Do Better Than Voluntourism

March 2019

Voluntourism often hurts communities more than it helps them. Instead, let’s invest in long-term solutions.

Sarah John, Deputy Opinion Editor

As someone from Nigeria, I usually have mixed feelings when my friends announce they are planning to go volunteer in a country with a high poverty rate.

The whole process is a little, well, uncomfortable. I am from Nigeria, and I have family that live there. To me, the idea of someone flying to some African country and offering them help is truly bizarre — probably as strange as it would be for an American to see someone from Nigeria travel here for two weeks to do the same. It also seems more than a little unproductive. I have never understood brief one-time volunteer trips. If you care about a community of people, shouldn’t helping them be a lifelong goal, and not a glorified vacation?

I acknowledge that some people go on these volunteer trips with the intention of genuinely trying to invest in sustainable change, but the vast majority of the time, that is far from the case. For many people, trips to volunteer in less wealthy countries produce little more than a few eye-catching Instagram posts at best. At worst, they produce actual harm for the communities they seek to help.

One can consider the example of Tara Winkler, the managing director of the Cambodian Children’s Trust, who has dedicated her life to helping kids in the Southeast Asian country. She is undoubtedly a brilliant activist, but at times in her life, her work has caused more harm than good. For a large portion of her activist career, she was unknowingly volunteering at an orphanage that essentially stole children from their parents in order to collect tourist donations, a common problem in many countries.

Winkler and my friends who travel to volunteer are both part of a far-reaching phenomenon: the spread of voluntourism. Voluntourism describes a form of tourism built on the idea that wealthy vacationers can turn their trip to a foreign country into a chance to help build a school, teach English or something along those lines. However, as this New York Times article outlines, this type of quick and easy activism frequently has negative repercussions. A family going on a voluntourism trip to help build Haitian schools might end up taking jobs from local bricklayers. Or consider those who travel to work with orphans. It may seem rewarding for both parties in the moment, but the eventual abandonment can hurt the kids in the long-term.

This is not to say that privileged communities should not take any action, however. It is merely to say that before beginning efforts to help, humility and practicality are key. We have the obligation to research and identify the best way we personally can contribute to issues around the world.

Frankly, the family laying bricks in Haiti probably should not have gone to a country they know nothing about to do a job they aren’t qualified for. But, they could make a real impact by investing their wealth into local industries in that town. Similarly, visiting an orphanage might just result in the perpetuation of attachment disorders. But, supporting local efforts to protect financially insecure families — as Tara Winkler later did — could change lives forever.

I have known from the time I was a child that I wanted to work to advance human rights, specifically in Nigeria, where my parents are from. I understand what it is to want to help communities that one rarely sees, but that one still feels indebted to. But the reality is, there is no easy way to do that. I will be in school for the next six or more years trying to learn the skills needed to help a community I care deeply about. It will be a long and complicated process, and I probably still won’t have learned everything I need to upon graduation. The knowledge of that fact is intimidating and sometimes even discouraging, but I know it will be worth it. That is the advice I would like to leave all volunteers with. If there is a community you wish to help, do the research first. Put in the work to find sustainable, valuable solutions. It won’t be as fun or quick as voluntourism is, but the knowledge you are doing the absolute best you can? That is well worth the wait.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

Email Sarah John at sjohn@nyunews.com.