Trade, Development, and Immigration

In defence of ‘voluntourism’


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In 1958, the British couple Alec and Moira Dickinson founded the charity Volunteer Service Overseas. Armed with the lofty vision of a “world without poverty”, the organisation supplied British school-leavers the chance to volunteer their unskilled labour in developing countries, providing them with only basic accommodation and a small stipend to cover living costs. Ever since, this trend of “voluntourism” – travellers typically from affluent parts of the world spending their holidays providing free services to developing countries – has grown at an incredible rate, and as of 2018 the industry was valued at approximately $2 billion per year.

As benevolent as this industry may seem, it has not been without its detractors. Consider Ossob Mohamud’s damning indictment in The Guardian.

“Voluntourism almost always involves a group of idealistic and privileged travelers who have vastly different socio-economic statuses vis–à–vis those they serve. They often enter these communities with little or no understanding of the locals’ history, culture, and ways of life. All that is understood is the poverty and the presumed neediness of the community, and for the purposes of volunteering, that seems to be enough.”

This assessment is surprisingly common. According to this view, the volunteers are just privileged western kids looking to build their CV, without really benefiting the communities they claim to help. The services they provide will damage the economy in the regions visited by taking work from the local people. The work provided by the tourists is often not as efficient as it could be, since they may have minimal training. More moderate detractors make the point that it would be far better to donate the money spent on a volunteering holiday directly to the community in question. Others take it one step further in arguing that voluntourism is an example of the western world being “wedded to colonialism”.

Of course, problems can emerge, especially where children are concerned. It has been firmly established in academic literature that an endless ‘revolving door’ of enthusiastic western visitors can hinder the emotional development of children due to the constant formation and severance of personal bonds. In some cases, this can lead to the hyperaffectionate displays that many visitors find rewarding. The problems do not stop there: those who provide manual unskilled labour, for example to assist with the construction of schools and hospitals, will generally be far less effective than a trained and experienced professional, and it would be better for the community if employment were provided to one of its members in the process.

Nobody intellectually honest could question that ‘voluntourism’ compares badly to the option of the work being done by a local person, who will have a better understanding of the community and its needs, and will be provided with gainful employment. However, this is manifestly the wrong comparison to make. That is not the alternative here. Consider, for example, a community in Kenya that desperately needs a primary school, but does not have the funds to construct it – either to buy the materials or to pay for the labour. Voluntourism organisations provide both the labour and materials to the community, for free, via the fees charged to their volunteers.

The choice that presents these communities is often not between a volunteer and a local person doing the work: it’s between a volunteer doing the work or the work not being done at all. Presented with this choice, communities overwhelmingly choose the former – throwing the “colonialism” comparisons into very hot water indeed. And while it would be even more beneficial if the tourists donated the money spent on their trip directly to the community, one has to question the integrity of those who make this argument: do they never go on holiday, and instead donate all of their expendable income to developing countries? Ultimately, this is a matter of people using their time and money far more productively than most of us do when we go on holiday, and to attack them for that is deeply unfair.

Critics of ‘voluntourism’ assume the worst of the tourists themselves, while rarely offering any alternative advice for how to volunteer abroad in a positive way. It’s no coincidence that many are also deeply hostile towards western market capitalism. Yet voluntourism also shows the system coming up with ingenious ways to solve problems. 

Rowan Wright is a mathematics student at the University of Cambridge who is particularly concerned with the rise of nanny state paternalism pertaining to diet. In his free time he enjoys mountaineering, continental cooking and playing the classical guitar.


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