Voluntourism and the Problem With Commercializing Charity

It is easy to understand the appeal of voluntourism, an increasingly lucrative industry marketing service-oriented vacations to 10 million volunteers a year. The allure of tropical getaways merged with charity forms a $173 billion industry of voluntourism, sending well-meaning volunteers to underdeveloped regions to play with orphans, build schools and return home with a globally conscious mindset. Whether the volunteer’s motivations are to bolster a résumé or improve living conditions for the less fortunate, voluntourism often struggles to create lasting positive impacts in the regions they aim to help.

An overarching fault in the execution of voluntourism is a lack of regulation, allowing companies to exploit the popularity of charity for profit. With no standards or regulation to enforce the quality of work, the aid given through voluntourism companies can be lacking, and even harmful.

These companies send volunteers, eager to get their hands dirty, to take on roles for which they are unequipped. Most volunteers do not have the skills to build wells, construct schools or teach children. This is overlooked, however, as the priority of many for-profit voluntourism groups is the volunteers financing the companies, not the host communities themselves.

The lack of oversight and distorted motivations of voluntourism translate into ineffective volunteering. This is particularly evident in one of the most popular subsets of voluntourism, childcare. The average two-week volunteering stint in an underdeveloped orphanage rarely yields positive long term effects. The children are already vulnerable, and forming short-lived attachments with volunteers can potentially form psychological and emotional issues. The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, concerned with unregistered childcare funded by voluntourism, recently urged volunteers to reconsider the impact of their aid, saying, “Without realizing it, such support may be indirectly harming children.”

Voluntourism is comprised of quick fixes to complex and systemic problems. Instead of addressing the underlying causes of poverty, voluntourism companies send volunteers bringing momentous relief, which ends as soon as the trip is over. Unskilled volunteers are brought in for building projects that could be better completed by local workers. Voluntourism provides toys and play for orphans, but no sustainable plans for education or reform. The lack of extended solutions creates a dependency on voluntourism for aid, instead of establishing self sufficiency.

By furthering this dependency, voluntourism sustains the cyclical poverty it is trying to remedy. The failings of voluntourism to effect long term change are rooted in the industry’s motivations. By commercializing charity, the mission shifts from helping others to maximizing profits. This means resources are diverted from actual problems, volunteers are improperly trained, and local communities are not prioritized.

Similarly, the ambitions of the individual volunteers can be flawed. Some may view volunteering as a résumé booster, others as a way to feel like a good person while on vacation. But there is an underlying selfish interest in some volunteers. Author of “Looks Good on your CV: The Sociology of Voluntourism Recruitment in Higher Education” Nichole Georgeou said, “There’s this idea that is in-built in voluntourism that we in the West have the knowledge and the skills to make a difference, we have a right to make a difference.”

While commercializing charity poses risks, all volunteering should not be avoided. However, in order to effectively achieve their goals of helping others, volunteers and companies alike must reform their approach to charity and abide by a set of ethical standards. Standards like “Fair Trade Learning” outline guidelines for volunteering that ensure the relationship between volunteer and host is beneficial to both parties. For voluntourism to work, its singular goal must be charity and reform, not business.

The approach of volunteers must also be reformed. As high school students, service trips and other forms of voluntourism are enticing options for gap years and summers. But before buying a voluntourism trip and flying off to an underdeveloped country, consider the motives behind the charity vacation. Is it to post photos of orphaned children on social media? Impress a college? Once voluntourism values the host community over the volunteer and the profit, the industry can begin to offer sustained and meaningful help.

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