I loathe the words “Volunteer Tourism”. To me these words signify the epitome of selfishness, arrogance and naivety.
Think about it.
Every year hundreds, thousands of (mostly) young adults from the western world flock to poor counties and communities with an air of superiority in the name of “helping” those less fortunate. I accept that there are a number of people out there in the world who genuinely want to do some good, but for many these week to two-week missions are more about some sort of indulgent self-discovery, resume padding and the general satiation of western guilt.
Let us use the popular orphanage volunteering as an example. If you really think about it for a moment, doesn’t it strike you as utterly wrong that you can buy a holiday package including orphanage “volunteering”? It should.
First off, there is no volunteering to it, you, the privileged rich kid, are paying for the opportunity to exploit young, poor, parentless children in highly unfortunate situations so that you can pat yourself on the back and tell your friends back home what a great thing you have done and what a great person you are.
You have been played for a fool.
I say this not just because I think that the majority of volunteer tourism is self-indulget crap, its also bad for developing nations, and bad for the children.
Volunteering at orphanages, has raised the demand for “orphans” in many developing countries, causing the unnecessary separation of children from their families and resulting in a number of false orphanages. Because while the number of actual orphans in the world is dropping, the number of orphanages has increased in areas where holiday volunteering is a popular tick in the box for collage students, gap year travelers and lost souls working their way through a bucket list.
More than 20 tour operators in the UK alone are making money off of “orphanage volunteer” packages. Even if you don’t book through a company back home, you are still perpetuating a devastating problem.
No matter your good intentions the care of orphaned children should be done by local, skilled workers, who understand the childrens’ cultures and situations and who are around for the long term, not off to a full moon party in two weeks time!
And that’s just the orphanage aspect!
The same is true of supposed elephant “rescue” camps which are actually more like interactive zoo’s maintaining an elephant population for profit, tricking the unassuming “volunteer” into paying for a chance to interact with a creature that should be living a life in the wild. In the case of elephants, and other wild animals, it is through sever starvation, isolation and beating that these creatures are made “safe” for tourist interaction. There are only a very few rescue centers the world over that actually exist for the purpose of rescue.
The list of volunteer programs that are shady at best is long…. volunteer teaching in many places takes paid jobs away from local people, educational programs for adults often have underlaying agendas that do not actually serve those they claim to help, coral conservation groups often exist for profit only and do little in the way of aiding the worlds oceans….. the list goes on.
Travelers considering volunteer tourism need to do some extensive research and self-evaluation. Perhaps a two-week holiday isn’t the best way to serve the needy populations of the world but if you’re determined it’s not a bad idea to know how your behavior affects others and fully understand the nature of your undertaking.