Debunking 4 common arguments in favour of voluntourism

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Originally published on WhyDev.org, in February 2015.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a deluge of criticism of international volunteering (see hereherehere and here), particularly when involving unskilled young people. As the debate has raged on, exploring the positives and negatives of volunteering abroad, the number of unskilled volunteers has been ever-increasing, and the sector has seen new placement providers – for better and worse – popping up all over the world.

With an uneasiness around voluntourism having infiltrated our public consciousness, the question remains of why we continue to see a flood of unskilled volunteering overseas… Do people selfishly not care that they may be causing more harm than good? Do they not fully understand the negative consequences that could – and often do – result from their actions.

This post aims to debunk four common arguments made to justify unethical volunteer placements:

1. It can’t be that bad…

This is the most common argument for justifying voluntourism placements (and helping ease a worried conscience!). For people who don’t spend their studies or professional lives thinking about humanitarianism, the notion that spending two weeks cuddling Cambodian orphans could result in anything other than smiles and happiness might seem far-fetched. Even when possible negative outcomes are explained (child safety concerns, attachment issues, separation of children from family, etc.), it’s hard for individuals to see their own relatively insignificant involvement as leading to these horrific outcomes.

However, volunteers should recognise that they’re one drop in a far bigger, far more damaging ocean, and that their short placement should not be held in isolation. Volunteers may not be around to see the negative effects of their activity, or may be so ethnocentrically blinkered they cannot recognise what’s happening right in front them. But this doesn’t mean these effects aren’t absolutely real and long-lasting. International volunteering – when done badly – can and does result in serious harm.

2. Something is better than nothing!

Another common argument in favour of voluntourism is that something is always better than nothing. My previous post on the double standards of volunteering with children abroad was met with criticism from people arguing that, while having trained professionals to work with children would be preferable, sending untrained students is better than nothing. This attitude I find very concerning, as it’s part of a damaging rhetoric regarding the behaviour and standards required in Western countries, compared to the lesser standards accepted in developing nations.

Why is a child in Australia or the U.K. any more deserving of having trained professionals teach and look after them than a child in Botswana, Nepal or Peru? We need to stop settling for second-best when it comes to our involvement in the lives of other people, be they in another country or in our own. There may be a claim that something is better than nothing, but the “something” in question here could be much improved.

3. But the poor people need me!

Growing up in the aftermath of Band Aid and witnessing the rise of celebrity humanitarianism, I can understand why people have a genuine conviction that developing countries (especially in “Africa”) desperately need the help of ordinary, everyday, rich Westerners. You only have to watch TV or ride the London Underground to be bombarded with messages about how your $0.39 a day could save a poor child in X country. It is a relatively easy step from thinking, “All I have to do is give a few dollars,” to “Heck, I’ll just fly over there and help the poor people myself!”

However, this is a fundamentally flawed and unrealistic understanding of global inequality. Throwing money at poverty will not change the systemic imbalance of power that keeps the poor poor (and in some places, getting poorer). Likewise, unskilled “help” does not actually help anyone – except potentially the helper. Unskilled volunteers and second-hand clothes are not what people need. Instead, concerned citizens should be considering how to push for a dramatic shift in terms of global priorities, away from national interest and profiteering to true equality.

4. But it’s such a great opportunity for me.

Thousands of graduates each year try to land jobs in the development sector, but face setback after setback if they don’t have enough “field experience”. They are encouraged get experience by volunteering abroad before looking for a paid position. So, what do they do? They type “volunteer in Africa” or “volunteer in Thailand” into Google, book the opportunity with the best reviews, pack their bags, and off they go. Obviously the lack of critical thinking this displays is not a good quality for future development workers But unfortunately, big aid agencies and recruiters do little to explain to aspiring humanitarians the difference between good and bad volunteering.

Many young people feel they have to volunteer abroad to have a shot of getting the job they want, and they do so under the premise that, if the Oxfam’s and Save the Children’s of the world are suggesting this, it must be good. Even if, upon returning to their own country, volunteers think their project wasn’t as effective as it could have been, they can dispel any worries by concentrating on the fact that this experience will enable them to start a career in development and dedicate their whole lives to doing good. Voluntourism may not be good, but is it bad enough to potentially give up your aid career for?

Many argue that, through bad overseas volunteer experiences, young people come face to face with global inequality, returning home with their eyes opened. However, if this awakening is at the expense of real people with real lives, who may suffer real negative consequences, then you shouldn’t be interested. If you want a cultural experience, go travelling, build global friendships, and put money into local economies. You don’t have to feed into an industry making billions from exploitation to achieve this. And next time you find yourself in a voluntourism debate with someone making these arguments, remember that they’re easily debunked.

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