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

Continuing with our Volunteering Unpacked series, we will analyse in detail the negative impacts of ‘voluntourism’ and give some tips to avoid promoting it. You don’t know what voluntourism means? Check the first article of Volunteering Unpacked!

What are the negative impacts of Voluntourism? 

The concept of Voluntourism is closely linked to the perpetuation of the ‘white saviour complex‘, which is defined as a ‘critical description of a white person who is depicted as liberating, rescuing or uplifting non-white people’. According to Savala Nolan, the white saviour complex consciously or unconsciously sustains a position of hierarchical superiority adopted by economically and racially advantaged populations. 

When the act of voluntourism promotes this imbalance of power between who volunteers and who “receives” the volunteering, it ignores the agency and capabilities of communities and creates a dynamic where volunteers from privileged backgrounds are seen as superior to the people they are helping.

The empowerment and economic independence of territories is not one of the values promoted by voluntourism, since it provides short-term solutions that infantilise the “beneficiaries’. ​To avoid this issue, volunteers should work in partnership with local communities, rather than trying to take over or replace their role. This means listening to the needs and priorities of local people, collaborating with local organisations and leaders, and supporting local workers to take an active role in the development and growth of their own communities. By doing so, volunteers can help to build stronger and more resilient communities that are better equipped to thrive in the long term.​​ 

Humility and the capacity of volunteers to work collaboratively with the local community are particularly important for the quality of a project. However, volunteering can become just a self-complacency activity with volunteers more focused on the recognition they receive, rather than the impact they have on the territory. This tendency has increased in the age of social networks, which work as tools for self-promotion. Many organisations, such as the Norwegian International Student and Academic Support Fund (SAIH), have already pointed this out. Have a look at their sarcastic video on the harmful messages individuals promote on social media when volunteering. 

Another aspect to consider is that once you take part in a volunteering project, you come into contact with a community or a group of people that may have experienced traumatic psychological experiences and/or feel lost and powerless. In such delicate contexts, the volunteer should prioritise awareness, sensitivity, and respect for the experiences and vulnerabilities of others. Curiosity should not be an excuse for making private or invasive questions because people may feel uncomfortable replying. Therefore, it is best to avoid initiating conversations about sensitive topics. Keep in mind that as volunteers, we are not trained professionals such as psychologists or social workers. 

Being aware of our limits and of the context is crucial as our interviewee explained to us: 

“After obtaining my Master’s degree in European and International Studies, I have been looking for a long-term volunteer in Lebanon. Why Lebanon? I had studied the cultures and history of the Near and Middle East and Lebanon was the country I was most interested in, especially for its intercultural dynamics which I was passionate about. I quickly found a volunteer position on a reference site in the sector in France. After two recruitment interviews, several hours of studying the association’s project, and an appointment with a counselor from the local mission, I decided to sign a contract with the NGO for 10 months. The destination was not yet confirmed, although the commitment was tacitly made. After a few weeks of waiting, I was told that I could indeed sign up but that the only country I could be positioned in was Bangladesh, a country I knew nothing about. I then sent an email to mention my surprise and my lack of knowledge about this country. The answer was reassuring and supportive. I should not have worried, because I was going to be trained in ‘interculturality’ for three days in Paris. Moreover, this French NGO was set up in Bangladesh in 2020, the year of numerous demonstrations against the French government in the country. These reasons made me refuse the offer.”

To conclude, knowing your profile, values, and skills before committing to a mission is key to ensuring that you are able to bring added value to the project. This is why asking questions about one’s profile and also about the hosting NGO and the missions assigned can be a practice to avoid voluntourism. Here is a list of questions that can help to better target the project: What are my values? What are my skills? What do I know about the geographical area to which I wish to go? What do I know about the NGO’s field of action? Are my knowledge and skills in line with the missions that the NGO is offering me? Do I share the values promoted by the NGO? Do the NGO’s projects seem relevant to me? Why should I join this project and not another one?

How can we avoid promoting voluntourism?

It is important for both organisations and volunteers to critically examine the potential negative impacts of their volunteer practices and work to mitigate these impacts. Below we suggest some ideas to start with: 

Look for sustainable, long-term projects that are led by local communities and that prioritise the needs and perspectives of those communities, involving them in decision-making. 

Take the time to educate yourself about the culture and context of the destination and prioritise ethical practices in all aspects of the volunteering experience. 

Search for trustful initiatives to support. Big organisations are not necessarily the best. Small actions lead to larger impacts!

Research the topic you want to volunteer for and inform yourself to facilitate your effective participation and avoid unproductive participation. 

Commit to projects that fit our skills or where we can contribute in a meaningful way according to our knowledge. Choose the right project. 

Find long-term commitments. Even if the volunteering is short-term. 

Look for NGOs that have developed a code of conduct for volunteers.

Look for a project that helps develop communities, and gives them the skills to sustain themselves beyond your stay.

And remember: the change starts in you!

In the next article of Volunteering Unpacked, we will examine the discourse of volunteering from a post-development theoretical approach. 

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