Why Voluntourism CAN be Positive

by Rachel Northover

Clearly, the voluntourism debate is becoming more and more widely discussed. The term “voluntourism” often carries negative connotations, but why?

Because there are too many voluntourism organizations that fail to ensure they are behaving ethically and responsibly. These are the voluntourism fails; the companies which have been set up to give volunteers an amazing experience, without considering that there should be reciprocal, long-term, sustainable benefits for host communities.

Volunteer making crafts with kids in Ghana

Teaching crafts in Ghana

Without a doubt, it is essential that individuals have an incredible experience while volunteering abroad. They have often planned, saved, and fundraised for months to embark on the volunteering trip of a lifetime. But, volunteers’ satisfaction and gratification should NOT be the main focus of voluntourism organizations.

Rather, the focus of voluntourism should be on the impact that volunteers can make during their trip, and the benefits their presence has on the community they are visiting. 

Certainly, and this may go without saying, voluntourism companies must NOT have a detrimental effect on local communities, whether in terms of taking jobs from local people and failing to deliver the standards that local tradesmen offer. If a voluntourism organization can say, hand-on-heart, that their overarching aim is to support and benefit the host community, and they have the procedures and practices to demonstrate this and carry this out, then they are likely providing ethical and responsible voluntourism opportunities.

Every term used to describe a voluntourism organization or opportunity should be applicable to both the volunteer AND the host community.

Consider the word “life-changing.” The opportunity to volunteer abroad should be life-changing for both the traveler and those in the community that they visit. Don’t get me wrong; one volunteer cannot expect to change lives in the space of a two-week trip, but they can do so by being part of a bigger movement with a bigger goal in mind. For example, volunteering in Tanzania as part of a group to build a classroom that will ensure that 40 children can receive a better education; this is what life-changing is.

Next, “making a difference.” Every volunteer program should make a difference for both the volunteer and their host community. Again, one might argue that a volunteer cannot make a monumental difference to a community in two weeks. But, their contribution to installing running water at a school project previously without clean drinking water will definitely still be able to create clear, long-lasting benefits. Likewise, one would hope that the difference to the volunteer would be greater than just having had “a great two weeks abroad.”

Construction volunteering in Kenya

New classroom construction in Kenya

The hope is that volunteers will have a new perspective on the world through voluntourism, and seek to really make a difference, in terms of sustainable development throughout their life, after becoming more altruistic. 

How can a company ensure this change in a volunteer? They can’t. But, they can ensure that a volunteer is exposed to the realities of a different culture, and that they have the opportunity to make a real and tangible difference, thus increasing the chances of the impact being real and long term.

Motives can be pure and you, the volunteer, really can make a difference! If you choose the right company and you are able to support a project giving children access to education or a daily meal, instead of them spending their days on a rubbish dump scavenging for food, where is the negative in that?

 So, how do you, the volunteer, ensure that you are doing voluntourism “right”?

1. Research voluntourism organizations.

Is their focus solely on your experience or do they demonstrate their commitment to local communities? They should have a responsible travel policy. and they should balance their desire to give volunteers a great trip with creating long-lasting change where they conduct work. Responsible companies will be able to evidence the impact they have made through the work of volunteers, and also demonstrate what their goals are going forward, with a clear focus on benefiting their host communities. And you should be able to find all of this information on their website.

2. Remember sustainable development is key!

If the company were unable to operate, would the benefits to the community disappear or are there safeguards in place? For example, are the initiatives they are involved with run by local people who can keep these going? Many voluntourism organizations are criticised for introducing initiatives in another country which, although benefiting the local community, do not actually involve the local community in planning or practice. The issue then comes when the company can no longer operate and the said initiative is unable to continue.

Look for a company with strong links with its host communities, a company which works in consultation with local people.   

Volunteer with kids in Kenya

Volunteer interaction in Kenya

3. Check if there is a partnership in place.

It is essential that each voluntourism company and its volunteers are welcome in the local community, or they should NOT be there. A working relationship with those in the local community demonstrates that the company’s presence is welcomed and impactful. This point links in with the above point, and the two very much go hand in hand, because community involvement will encourage and support sustainability. The key word here is “partnership.” It surely goes without saying that the local community should be consulted regarding matters affecting them; companies which believe in responsible voluntourism will address this point.

4. Ensure there is support of the local economy.

Choose to volunteer abroad with an organization that does not take jobs away from local people, but rather creates employment and other opportunities for local community members. Voluntourism is often deemed as negative because there is the assumption that jobs are being taken away from local people by volunteer travelers, but this is not always the case.

Instead, it is often the case that volunteers assist local tradesmen and professionals, rather than replacing them; even, in some cases, providing additional training and tools which will support them in their job into the future. Many voluntourism organizations ensure that they also create employment for those in the local community, so choose to travel with these companies and you’ll know you are doing it right.

Construction volunteers in Ghana

Building work in Ghana

5. Challenge yourself and the reasons why you want to travel abroad.

Are you looking for self-gratification or do you want to make a real difference? Everyone has their own motives for volunteering abroad and this is fine, but can you honestly say, hand-on-heart, that your intentions are responsible and pure? It is not wrong to want the feel-good factor, but, believe me, making a real difference far outweighs a pat on the back, so do voluntourism right! 

This article was contributed by African Adventures. Founded in 2009 and based in the UK, African Adventures offers volunteer programs in Ghana, Kenya, and Zanzibar. The organization is aimed at helping volunteers make a real difference through supporting local projects in each destination.