In our increasingly interconnected world, people are no longer satisfied experiencing new cultures, traditions or languages the old-fashioned way, with a well-thumbed guidebook in hand. Instead we travel to Haiti to build houses, survey pink dolphins in the Amazon or work on an organic farm to learn about village culture in Romania. The traditional tourist is being replaced by a more engaged traveler: the voluntourist.
The sector has become a big global business. In 2008, the Association for Tourism and Leisure Education Research estimated the global value of the industry at around $2 billion, with a total of around 1.6 million voluntourists a year.
A large proportion of these voluntourists are recent or imminent graduates, eager to offer their services while simultaneously rounding out their CVs for future employers. The root of this instinct is admirable -- an altruistic urge to bridge a cultural gap beyond the summarily transactional one we are used to as tourists -- but critics warn that it merely represents the latest wave of neocolonialism, with voluntourists exoticizing other cultures in countries far from their homes.
Vacations for the Privileged
Sam Gregory, program director at the human rights organization Witness.org, emphasizes the importance of adopting a conscious approach that aligns with the host community's interests -- and an awareness of a voluntourist's privilege that "only those with the money, the access to a visa and the time to (volunteer)" have access to.
There's a danger, he warns, that you "get close enough to feel like you've been exposed to another reality, but you're still able to step away."
Beyond these ideological dangers that come with voluntourism, there are also real dangers -- economic, physical and cultural -- that have taken root as an unintended result of these interventions. The first is a direct corollary of supply and demand: As more tourists seek authentic experiences through local organizations on the ground in far-flung countries, a sub-economy is springing up to cater to this niche.
This applies particularly to those institutions with links to orphanages, one of the key industries that targets prospective voluntourists. Rules governing the official status of NGOs are frequently opaque, and an organization often needs only a website and minimal social media presence to convince would-be volunteers of its legitimacy.
Nepal's 'Paper Orphans'
In 2014, UNICEF issued a warning about the dangers of orphanage voluntourism, flagging the often scant background checks on volunteers working with children and, more problematic, the deliberate separation of children from their families in order to attract fee-paying volunteers and donors.
The problem is particularly widespread in Nepal. The Social Welfare Council in Kathmandu, which is responsible for NGO activities in the country, believes 30,000 foreigners volunteer in the country each year. The majority travel to Nepal on tourist visas, technically making the work they do illegal, but the government usually turns a blind eye.
One of the most prominent cases of abuse took place at Mukti Nepal, a fraudulent orphanage established in Kathmandu by Goma Luitel. Children in the home had been wrongly separated from their parents and severely beaten and neglected. Luitel threatened them with bodily harm if they told volunteers they weren't really orphans.
The case provided a textbook example of the darker side of voluntourism, one organizations like the NGO Next Generation Nepal (NGN) are working with UNICEF to try to prevent.
There have been numerous other instances in which children have been denied access to their families and basic human rights. But even in cases where they had been superficially well cared for in terms of food and shelter, children had still been trafficked and exploited for profit.
Many are called "paper orphans" due to the illegal paperwork forged to declare the children parentless. In a 2008 report, UNICEF and children's aid organization Terre des Hommes estimated that 85 percent of the around 16,000 youth residing in orphanages in Nepal have at least one living parent.
Voluntourism After the Earthquake
There are also other ways in which voluntourism can go wrong. The aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal, in which 8,000 people lost their lives, also sparked an upswing in voluntourists.
In a report on volunteer efforts in the country after the quake, Martin Punacks, country director for NGN, outlined the downsides of foreign visitors trying to help in sometimes dangerous situations. Without the language, the necessary skills and appropriate equipment, they at times proved to be a greater burden for locals than help:
Tips for Budding Voluntourists:
Despite all these pitfalls, there are still myriad ways in which you can contribute your time and skills to people in need while traveling. Next Generation Nepal offers the following tips for making responsible decisions:
- Avoid orphanages: Often they are home to children who have been trafficked for profit. These visits are also accompanied by the risk of attachment trauma from the inevitable separation the children feel when your time draws to a close.
- Before volunteering, adopt a "learning mindset" and consider the suitability of your skills.This means readjusting your whole approach toward volunteering and recognizing that you first need to learn from those you wish to help.
- Commit yourself to sustainability: Will the project continue to be useful after your time in the country ends? Focus on establishing relationships, a particularly important skill in areas with lots of bureaucracy and paperwork where it can take months or years before decisions are made.
- Go beyond superficial engagement: This means acquiring prior knowledge of the language or customs, actions that will mean you don't require considerable introduction to become fully functional. Many voluntourists often don't surpass this stage and require constant help from locals.
- Research ethical volunteering options thoroughly: Look at the organization's past history and impact in order to determine if it is legitimate.
- Be an ethical Tourist: Ensure that you're not unconsciously undermining local capacity to become autonomous. Why fly in external helpers from abroad when it would serve communities far better in the long run to train locals (often in need of employment) to perform such tasks?
By heeding these points and seeing the service beyond the limited context of a short stay in the host country, it's possible we can help to break down the exoticized divisions between ourselves and others and ensure that the road less traveled of voluntourism is a two-way street.