Voluntourism is a growing trend where travellers volunteer time, most often for charity, in a location where they are also engaging in tourism. This term may have begun as a neutral way to describe an emerging alternative holiday trend. It has now become a hot topic in development studies and policy. There are many aspects to this growing trend. Regular voluntourists may have chosen to become pseudo development agencies. Many fund their trip independently, however, they may also fundraise from friends and family in order to engage in ‘good works’ overseas.
A critical question that needs to be addressed is; who really is benefitting from voluntourism? Does the practice add sufficient value, in spite of its shortcomings, to be considered a bonafide contributor to global development efforts? The NIAS blog series on ‘Doing Good the Right Way’ will attempt to answer some of these questions.
The devil is usually in the details. Just as is the case with the deployment of aid by organised global charities, problems start to emerge when the practices of voluntourists are examined closely. Arguably, voluntourism has many benefits to offer to host communities; from increased earnings in tourism income to positive cultural education and, shining light on forgotten causes. Nevertheless, it appears to contribute more than its fair share to the controversies and debates surrounding overseas development work. Many development tourists have been accused of poverty fetishism, a practice where voluntourists appear more motivated to exploit photographs/videos of the misery of poor people to improve on their own social credibility and to garner likes and followers on social media.
Also, Individual financing of voluntourism can easily have an exclusionary effect. A typical voluntourist will have access to enough money to travel abroad in order to carry out unpaid work, a luxury that is only available to a select few. Costs include flights, insurance, accommodation as well as volunteer placement fees. Placement fees alone can range from £400 a week or more (Rhodes, 2013). Overall, 1.6 million people volunteer on holiday every year, spending $2 billion (Freidus, 2017). Although this seems like a large number of people, often voluntourism is limited to those who have monetary advantages.
Frequently, voluntourists’ background contrasts to those they interact with. They are often not adequately educated on the needs of the community they are volunteering with (Mohamud, 2013). Where voluntourists are disconnected from the needs and circumstances they claim to help, their work is likely to be unproductive. Economic privilege is clearly one of the drivers for voluntourism. The wealthy can more easily afford to travel to remote destinations to get involved with communities that need help, irrespective of their knowledgebase or credibility. Something needs to change to ensure money and efforts are properly deployed.
Voluntourism can also be problematic within race demographies. The majority of voluntourists are white, with 71% of voluntourists coming from Europe or North America (Cheung, Michel and Miller, 2010: 19). In contrast, only 4% came from Africa, creating uncomfortable race dynamics. Voluntourism has the worrying potential to promote the white saviour complex, where white people are deemed best placed to assist those of other racial backgrounds. Their actions can easily be interpreted as self-serving and patronising (Biddle, 2017). This is not helpful within development policymaking. The White Saviour Complex is further highlighted by social media campaigns like ‘Barbie Saviour,’ demonstrating how white, western self-congratulation demeans the countries receiving voluntourists. This further entrenches privilege within voluntourism, where white people are potentially given license to act as liberators irrespective of whether they possess the skills, knowledgebase or capacity to deliver the required interventions. More education is required to help people understand and take into account how race and privilege impact the delivery of the voluntourists’ work.
A further issue is rights violations, which voluntourists, more than employed aid workers may have the privilege to gloss over. Many have reported that children are photographed by voluntourists without seeking personal or parental permission (Sawlani, 2018). This highlights a problem where people’s rights are being infringed with no consequences. Voluntourists are not compelled to take this factor into account because the voluntourism system reinforces the idea that if you have good intentions, positive change will happen overnight and thus protect the voluntourist from negative impacts (Jesionka, 2018). It is important to keep in mind “we must not let caring about material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor”.
Voluntourists currently have the privilege to disregard rights because action is not taken to protect communities they volunteer with, and/or voluntourists are not educated on good volunteering practices. Voluntourism is not immune from recent scandals documented within the international development community involving rights abuses (Sawlani, 2016). A recent UK parliament report by the International Development Committee highlighted recent documented cases of the grant of aid in return for sexual exploitation by individual aid workers (International Development Committee, 2018). The fact that voluntourists as a general rule are not subject to any regulatory oversight is a critical pull factor for rights violators which needs to be addressed urgently by policy makers, placement organisations and host communities.
The key question now is – considering the issues raised in this blog, is there any hope for voluntourism? This will be tackled in a follow up blog.
 Easterly, W. (2014). Tyranny of Experts. New York: Basic Books, p.339.
Miss. Emily Maguire, Journal Publishing Intern
National institute for African Studies