This article has been developed by Agnès Terral, Anna Bartalini, Emma Santanach, and Flavia Ceccarelli.

Open Cultural Center is launching a new series of articles to raise awareness of volunteering! From now on, as part of Volunteering Unpacked by OCC, we will be exploring different topics related to this experience. Because not all forms of volunteering are valid.

What does voluntourism mean?

The term voluntourism – a contraction of the words “volunteering” and “tourism” – refers to a form of volunteering that combines international travel with volunteer work. There is no single definition of the term, but it is often used with negative connotations to describe either those forms of tourism, often in developing countries or areas affected by natural disasters or other crises, in which volunteering experiences are also combined, or those volunteering experiences that resemble more a form of tourism than a learning and/or solidarity experience.

Initiated in the 1990s, this trend developed considerably in the 2000s, particularly among young Europeans and Americans. It has intensified since the pandemic, as correlated to the desire not only to travel but also to find alternative forms of traveling. This practice usually involves young people or groups who pay for the opportunity to be involved in volunteer work, often organized by a nonprofit organisation. The most common examples of voluntourism projects include building homes or schools, teaching English, or doing construction work and providing assistance after disasters.

What are the specific features of voluntourism?

Some of the most common features of this form of volunteering are:

1. Lack of preparation and awareness. Within these types of projects, volunteers often lack awareness of the country in which they will be volunteering, of the problems that characterized it, and the specific context in which they will be “volunteering in”, and this gap is rarely filled by the sending organisation, which doesn’t invest time nor money to train and prepare the volunteers. 

2. Naive and superficial narratives. The message that organisations create and convey around these types of experiences also contributes to passing them off as superficial experiences. Volunteers are almost depicted as heroes or saviors who are “saving” or “fixing” the problem of the local community. The volunteering experience is also often described as one of the best ways to spend a summer break or part of a gap year, contributing to the image of volunteering as a summer pastime. 

3. Short-term projects. Voluntourism projects are often short-term, as they last from a few days to a few weeks. This might result in projects that lack sustainability, because the impact of the work done by volunteers in that short-time may not last beyond their time there. This can be particularly true for construction projects, where unskilled volunteers may build structures that may not be maintained properly.

4. Lack of qualifications required. Unlike other volunteering opportunities, voluntourism projects often do not require volunteers to have specific skills or qualifications. While this lack of requirements may make voluntourism projects more accessible and appealing to a wider range of people, it can also lead to projects that do not meet the needs of the local community or that even cause harm.

5. For-profit intention. Voluntourism experiences are not free and can be either offered by non-governmental organisations or by companies whose motives are purely commercial.

Why does voluntourism take place?

At first glance, the reasons why people choose to engage in a voluntourism experience seem to be a laudable intention. You have some free time and therefore decide to combine the pleasure of seeing and visiting a new country with a “good cause”. However, behind these seemingly rewarding experiences, there is often a very different reality. To understand why these kinds of experiences are very attractive to young people but not only, we asked our team member Clara about her voluntourism experience.

“When I was 18 I went to Cambodia for 2 months. My critical thinking skills were not that developed, I wanted to “change the world”, and I was believing in these things that you believe more in when you are younger. I picked Cambodia randomly, without informing myself beforehand about its history, and what the situation was in the country. I managed to go there through an organization that places volunteers around the world. I ended up teaching English in an orphanage to kids that were around the age of 6. When you are young and you have never been exposed to or educated on being more aware, you have the tendency to essentialize people or countries. When you are young you decide to volunteer and do something for others because you are feeling guilty about being privileged and then you have the need to do something about it. However, you have to think thoroughly about what you want to do, and why you want to do it. When I came back I did a training on how to do “impactful volunteering”, in a more aware way, because I realized the negative impact that the experience that I did might have had on the people I have worked with. It’s important to understand how to position yourself to others. When you go to another country you don’t have to think about the people as people who have nothing to do with you because in the end, we are all equals. The best thing that you can do is to educate yourself and try to change your perspective.”

Voluntourism takes place for a variety of reasons. Some people participate in voluntourism out of a desire to give back and contribute to social or environmental causes, or to help in case of a disaster. For example, in Clara’s case, she had become aware that she had a more privileged life than others and felt compelled to help others. Other people find voluntourism a great way to develop new skills, new language, or even gain valuable work experience. This is often the case for young people who are looking to gain experience and skills or wish to make the most of their summer break. 

Did you hear about this term before? Do you still think that all forms of volunteering are valid?

In the next article of the Voluntourism series, we will analyze in detail the negative forms of this type of volunteering, as well as give some tips to avoid promoting it.


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