With December 5th being International Volunteer Day, it seems appropriate to explore “voluntourism” and its role in international development.  What is voluntourism?  Voluntourism is “undertaking holidays that may involve the aiding or alleviating of the material poverty of some groups of society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment.” Or more simply put traveling and volunteering combined together and often times involving a fee.  A 2008 U.K. study put the voluntourism market size at 1.6 million voluntourists per year, a number that can only be assumed has grown.
Voluntourism has increased over the past decade, as people look to create more meaningful travel experiences, but does it really have a place in the international development realm?  That question is a bit more difficult to answer, as a returned volunteer I would love to say yes, but also as a returned volunteer I am a bit more disillusioned.  The efficacy of voluntourism is a bit more nuanced than a simple yes or no answer.
The results of voluntourism largely depend on the organization of the travel.  Typically, the voluntourist pays a company to travel to an underdeveloped region and volunteer for a few weeks and then returns home.  This is not the only form of voluntourism however, there are several long term opportunities to travel abroad and volunteer, think Peace Corps, where volunteers spend three months training and another two years living in a community.  The former takes a more corporate structure, which is where many people have a problem with the industry, because it is just that: an industry.

A typical voluntourism project. (Photo from Wikipedia).
A typical voluntourism project. (Photo from Wikipedia).
The more corporate approach of voluntourism has a lot of negative aspects, particularly in terms of development.  Because of the short lengths of the trips, they are designed more with the volunteer in mind, rather than the impact on the hosts. With this focus on attracting volunteers, rather than the actual development of the host community, many volunteers simply lack the skills needed to provide services in these communities.  This results in a lot of volunteers participating in projects like building things, which aren’t necessarily sustainable projects.
However, there are a lot of very good organizations that send long-term volunteers.  Organizations like WorldTeach, of which I am an alumni, send participants on longer term programs, most being a full semester or year.  This year gives time to interact with your community and gain a more local perspective on the issues.  It also allows volunteers to really become part of the community, rather than being an outsider.  Learning the language, interacting with the locals and living in the government teacher housing all provided me with an opportunity to see what needs existed in the community.
Volunteering does probably have a role in international development, particularly in the areas of human development.  However, more consideration needs to be placed on the recipients rather than the sending organizations.  Long term placements give volunteers the opportunity to gain local knowledge and experience that is unavailable to tourist going for a few weeks.  While understandable that not everyone has a year of their life to give up to volunteer, perhaps it is necessary that more people consider the needs of the host before paying to go on a trip.
Research the countries and communities, research the sending organizations, and consider spending more time in the community before committing to a volunteer vacation.

Jessica Carroll is a first year Master’s student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and an international student from the United States.  Her research topics of interest are foreign direct investment and its role in economic development, particularly in Africa.  Currently she is working on a paper exploring commodity exchanges and their economic benefits in Sub-Saharan Africa. 
Featured Photo by lenovophotolibrary.


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