Vacationing and volunteering aren’t easy to mix

Ali Schwabe | Fulcrum Staff

Illustration by Kelsey Shore 

YOU’RE PLANNING SPRING break. You want to see a new country and have a few adventures, so you do a little research and stumble upon a voluntourism trip. Nine days in Costa Rica. It seems ideal. In the mornings you’ll volunteer at a school site, building a well and hanging out with local kids, and every afternoon you’ll go off on some cool activity: zip-lining on Wednesday, sampling local beer on Friday. What could be better? You get to experience a new culture, do a bunch of fun stuff with your friends, and as a bonus, give back and make your vacation meaningful—right? But according to the experts, these short, supposedly helpful trips may be doing more harm than good.

SEE ALSO: Voluntourism: Extended interviews

Word on the street
At its most basic definition, voluntourism simply means travel that includes some element of volunteering. In theory, it sounds awesome: you get to see a new place and enjoy yourself, plus you feel like you’re making the world a better place. In practice, though, experts like Stephen Brown, University of Ottawa political science professor, say there are too many grey areas in development for volunteering during vacation to automatically be a good thing.

“I’d say among the general population, voluntourism has a positive connotation in the sense that rather than just having fun, people are also making an effort to help others,” said Brown. “But among people who study the field or are experts in the area of international development, there’s a lot more skepticism. How much of an impact can you really have in working for one week or two?”

Alyson Rode is a fifth-year French as a second language student at the U of O. In 2008 she took part in a voluntourism trip, spending a week in Costa Rica planting trees and bringing school supplies to students whose school had been destroyed by a storm.

“I chose the trip for the experience of going to another country [and] seeing a climate and a style of living that was foreign to me,” she said in an email to the Fulcrum. “The volunteer aspect of the trip was an added bonus.”
Some companies have marketed the idea of doing good while on vacation to make a profit. Hands Up Holidays says on their website, “The secret ingredient that makes our trips so special is the combination of a fantastic tailor-made luxury holiday with a ‘taste’ of volunteering or philanthropy.”

These holidays often include hotels, afternoon adventures, and a tour guide to take you through the entire experience. Christian Euler, a fifth-year biotechnology student at the U of O, spent a summer in Ghana as part of Engineers Without Borders’ (EWB) international development Junior Fellowship (JF) program. He thinks there’s little benefit to voluntourism trips.

“EWB as a whole is sort of critical of people who go and stay in a hotel and build a bridge,” he said. “Our thing is that it’s much more complex than that, and you can’t learn all of the complexities if you don’t immerse yourself.”
Rode, on the other hand, felt that she got to experience a fun vacation while still learning and giving back.

“The trip brought to light what living conditions are like in developing countries,” she explained. “We were [also] able to partake in a lot of activities not related to volunteering. We went zip-lining, hiking, surfing, horse back riding, swimming, [and] partied in our hotels.”

A shortcoming of voluntourism is that it doesn’t address root problems.

“[Voluntourism] seems to be based on a simplistic understanding of what the problems of international development are,” said Brown.

Mireille Mather is the executive director of the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD), which works to reduce global poverty by providing grassroots community organizations—called community partners—with training and key resources, including Western volunteers, to address pressing socioeconomic issues.
Mather’s experience spans programs in 30 countries and in U.S. federal legislative advocacy, and she has worked as director of the Institute for OneWorld Health. She recognizes good intentions behind voluntourism, but doesn’t see its benefit to communities.

“I personally have a pretty negative perspective of voluntourism. I think that there’s a lot of well meaning behind what’s considered voluntourism, where people go and they want to experience the culture of another place where they’re not from and also to gain a greater understanding of what issues face those areas,” she said. “But [their volunteering] is in a way that doesn’t really help to resolve the issues. It’s more of a one-way interaction where they may gain more knowledge on an issue, maybe there’s a donation involved to a local charity, which of course I’m not minimizing, but it doesn’t do anything to address any of the root causes of the issues.

“It may make the person feel good about themselves…but it doesn’t make the community feel good about themselves, because they’re being objectified and only being seen as having problems.”

Laura Sie is the community engagement coordinator at the U of O’s Centre for Global and Community Engagement (CGCE). She hesitates to label any of the international volunteering projects offered by the centre “voluntourism.”

“We’re kind of scared of that term actually, so we’ve tried to avoid picking projects that have a voluntourism feel,” she said.

Avoiding (volun)tourist traps
There was unanimous agreement among the experts on what differentiated volunteer trips that benefit communities from typical voluntourism. The key? The project has to be desired and needed by the community, not imposed by the volunteers.

“We’ve selected projects that we understand to be community-driven projects where a need has been identified,” said Sie. “[Local communities have] requested this assistance.”

“It’s the idea that the communities involved are identifying what their needs are and beyond that intervention, someone in the community is helping,” added Stéphane Sophie Cardinal, director of the CGCE. “You can build a lot of things, but if nobody is maintaining them or nobody is trying to…the benefits will not continue.”

The FSD also offers short-term projects only with community partners who decide what needs are to be addressed, and takes the idea of community-driven volunteering one step further.

“The community partners are deciding how people who participate in our programs are contributing,” said Mather.
Sustainability’s key too.

“What we’re interested in is the sustainable,” said Sie. “How is this going to continue after the volunteers have left?”
The CGCE and FSD focus on sustainability to ensure projects benefit communities long term.

“A really key factor for us is the social and cultural sustainability,” said Mather. “That’s ensuring there’s local participation in every step of the way in the project design and often the project implementation. And that can be quite challenging. Because frequently, there may be certain skill sets within the community, but there may not be. So we support a lot of training, workshops, building knowledge, and helping those who do have certain skill sets within a community to share that more broadly out. [We’re trying to make it] so that an external person isn’t holding all that knowledge.”

Do no harm
According to the experts, another pitfall of voluntourism is that often it can have the opposite of its intended effect, and actually harm communities in developing countries.

“I think in a lot of the cases [of voluntourism], there was no needs assessment done. It’s just the photo op: I’m going to hold a baby for one week and feel like I’m volunteering,” said Sie. “What impact does it have on the baby? On the young child that grows attached to this person for two weeks and then the person leaves and they never come back? There’s a sense of abandonment.”

Brown believes voluntourism can also damage the West’s image.

“Sometimes people undertake these activities who aren’t very sensitive to local culture or local customs. They could even behave in a way that might appear shocking to local communities,” he said. “It could be around gender roles, it could be through sexual activity, it could be around drinking or using illicit drugs, [or] it could be in the way they dress. So sometimes [overseas projects] might—rather than build bridges between communities—make communities more suspicious of foreigners than they would have otherwise been.”

Mather recognizes that voluntourism isn’t ill-intentioned, but has seen harm done to communities by the most well-meaning volunteers.

“The risks, of course, are that there’s a lot of harm that can be done trying to do good,” she explained. “Many times I’ve see volunteers talk about how great the West is [to youth, saying,] ‘Oh, yes, you should come, you should come!’ But there’s no opportunity for these children to come. So it builds up unrealistic expectations and it can be horribly depressing for these children when they realize it’s not a realistic goal for them.”

Mather elaborated on unintentional harm.

“We all reflect our values, whether we’re conscious of that or not, including our expectations for just the daily comforts,” she said. “If you’re not prepared to be in an environment where electricity goes out for half the day, you see that as something that is horribly wrong, then it denigrates the community, when the community doesn’t have any control over that.

“Unintentional dismissing of how a culture and a community exists day-to-day can do a lot of harm within communities.”

EWB recognizes some of these pitfalls, and has thus structured the JF program to minimize risks as much as possible. This starts with a rigorous application process—not just anyone is selected to go overseas.

“Applications start in the fall. There’s an application form with some tough questions. You have to submit a resume, and then you’re shortlisted for an interview,” explained Euler.

And that’s not all: once a JF is selected, the process begins long before any airplane is boarded.

“Pre-departure learning is four months, from January up until May,” he said. “Reading development articles, reading about criticisms of development, [and] reading even just some African literature.”

“Right before you leave, there’s a week of fairly intensive training at the national office,” he continued. “You live with all the other JFs, you have 12–15 hour days, case studies, simulations, personal development stuff—it’s quite intense. Then you fly out and there’s some in-country training which is mostly culturally oriented…so that you don’t make mistakes right off the bat.”

Show me the money
Critics of overseas volunteering argue that sending more financial donations would be more valuable than buying plane tickets and booking hotel rooms. Professor Brown is one such critic.

“It’s relatively common for high schools to raise money to send students to the Dominican Republic to build a school,” he said. “This costs thousands of dollars, and high school students have no experience and no training in bricklaying, or carpentry, or masonry of any kind. If you take all that money and pay local Dominican carpenters, masons, and bricklayers to do the work, not only will you be creating employment, but that money will go a lot further in actually building something, and something of sound quality.”

Euler argues that corruption and broken systems make it hard to ensure your money will be used in an impactful way.
“I saw lots of corruption in the government office where I was working, and to be honest I wouldn’t feel comfortable just sending a cheque for $6,500—which is what my placement cost—to a government office,” he stated. “I don’t know how it would get used and I don’t know how effectively it would be used.”

Sie believes the connections formed by face-to-face interactions are worth more than sending a bigger cheque.

“I don’t know how to say it in a way that sounds big enough, but [the students] really saw the value in the personal connections and relationships that are formed,” she said. “[For example] students had to fundraise the $12,000 required to construct a school in Nicaragua, and the community appreciated being able to put a face to this nebulous entity that’s raised the money. Who knows what those connections can bring for both sides? It’s worth more than the $60,000 that would be sent over.”

Rode believes one of the benefits of voluntourism is that participants are able to see where their contribuition ends up.
“I got to see where the money actually went, and as an added bonus I went on a trip to Costa Rica and experienced new things,” she said.

Mather notes the FSD appreciates donations and knows it’s the best way for certain individuals to make an impact, but she also points out that the educational element of overseas volunteering may make it worth the investment.
“A large part of our mission and why we have these programs is to educate people about sustainable development: What is an appropriate and culturally sensitive way to contribute to global development?” she said. “We know that people are bringing these experiences back with them and are sharing their experiences with their family members and then using that knowledge either in their academic careers or in their professional careers. That really can start to change the way that people from the West view the communities we serve in developing countries, and we find that very valuable.

“For that $2,000, you’re getting a lifetime experience that hopefully will stay with you and that will impact the decisions that you make in the future.”

The perfect length
Some companies offer voluntourism trips that last as few as four days, while some programs offered by the FSD and EWB can last a year and longer. How long does one need to stay in a community to make an experience worthwhile? The general consensus among experts is the longer the trip, the better.

“You can’t make a big difference in a few weeks,” said Cardinal. “Try as much as possible to put conditions on the trip [like pre-departure training] that [are] the best for student, community, and partner.”

“There’s no time frame that will guarantee that they will do no harm,” said Brown. “Certainly a few months would be a minimum. And if people really want to gain an understanding of the communities in which they’re living and working and understand social relations and political context, four to six months might be a minimum.”

Few experts believe one week is enough to make a meaningful impact. The U of O doesn’t include international opportunities as part of their alternative reading week activities. Instead, students can opt to take part in local volunteering.

“We’re one of the few universities that don’t offer reading week as an international experience,” said Sie. “Local opportunities [show] them how they can contribute to their own community, which is a part of lifelong social action.”

Mather and the FSD also looked at eliminating their short-term trips, which last at least nine to 10 days.

“The project has to be very well planned out before they arrive in countries. That’s very important to us. We almost eliminated our short-term trips because at one point we felt that there wasn’t enough reciprocity out of it,” Mather said. “As soon as we were getting a lot more out of it than our partners, we had to take a step back and say, you know, let’s fix this problem. There was too much observation going on and not enough hands-on participation and contribution.

“Revising our strategy was ensuring that there’s extensive planning and preparation with students so that we can train them on our approach. They can hit the ground running.”

Who does it really benefit?
So, if you’ve already booked and paid for a traditional voluntourism trip, is it time to cancel and try to get some of your cash back? Not necessarily.

“For those who engage in voluntourism, it would be really good if they were aware that the main person that’s benefiting from it is them,” said Brown. “I’m not saying it’s not a reason to do it—if they really want to help, donating the money would do a lot more—but the experience could still be good for them. It could do something like increase awareness or even launch a career in international development. So it could be highly beneficial for the individual [even if it’s not so] for the host community.”

“The community recognizes that you’re a learner too,” explained Cardinal. “The centre promotes community engagement and lifelong commitment to action. Going overseas might [mean you] also derive a better understanding of what is inequality, what is social injustice? It’s some of those elements they’ll experience when they’re out there. And they’re coming back with a better understanding.”

“I’m not going tell people not to go and do these voluntourism things, because I realize there’s a lot of benefit in learning,” said Euler. “Just make sure that you do learn something and you learn with an informed and critical opinion.”