June 28, 2007

Defending Voluntourism

st croix river, interstate state park, taylors falls, minnesotaIn one of his posts, Our Man in Granada mentioned a three part article on the Downside of Voluntourism that he wrote for Volunteer Logue. After a spirited discussion in the comments section (I disagreed with some of his points), I read some of the other articles in the archives. There is some great information there, and I'm grateful that Steve introduced me to the site, and by extension, to Kate, who also wrote an article about voluntourism and another one about the value of volunteer trips.

I am interested in the different opinions of short term volunteer work because I am going on such a trip this summer with my 13 year son. We are going to Guatemala to help build a home for a family, but I'm very aware that we could be the ones to benefit the most from the experience. This is one of Ourman's points about voluntourism, "You are helping, it’s true, but mostly it is about the experience." I agree, and I don't see the problem with that, as I'll explain below.

Some of the downsides that Ourman mentions are that short term volunteers:

1. Take jobs away from local workers.
2. Take jobs away from long term volunteers interested in sustainability and training local workers.
3. In some cases, do more harm than good.

My thoughts:

1. I think both volunteers and local workers should be used on projects. Local people should always be involved in solving the problems they live with. They are the ones who know exactly what they are dealing with. Volunteers should be there to help them. It is also important for volunteers to "see issues like poverty or environmental problems first hand", as Kate discussed in one of her articles. Her point is that the experience will hopefully get people to think about issues of poverty and environmental problems, and use their knowledge to help change those situations. There is also the hope that once someone has helped a family or community with a project, they will feel an attachment to the people that might translate to continued support in the future, be it financial or political.

2. It seems like the work that most long term volunteers do isn't appropriate for short term workers, so I don't see it as being a big issue. I would be interested in specific examples of long term volunteers being replaced by short term ones. I would also be interested in how many long term volunteers started out as short term ones. Would there be as many long term volunteers if they hadn't experienced volunteering in the short term first?

3. In another article about voluntourism, Kate also mentions the possibility that short term volunteer projects can do more harm than good, and something isn't always better than nothing. I think it is the responsibility of the volunteer organizations to keep this from happening. In one of my comments on Ourman's article, I wrote "...as a volunteer, the last thing you want is to be a hindrance or part of the problem. Volunteer organizations should definitely be able to direct people to areas where they won’t be in the way and where they can do some good." Volunteers should also do their part to prevent this by educating themselves about the project and community they will helping.

Another point that gets mentioned frequently in articles about voluntourism is how much money volunteer trips cost. Arguments are made that if people just donated the cost of the trip to the organization, it would be more of a benefit to the community. In the real world, how likely is it that non-wealthy people would donate that kind of money without any first hand experience of the project?

That experience has other benefits, too. As mentioned above, if volunteers see the problems first hand, they will have more understanding of the issues behind those problems. If they meet the people they are helping, they will feel an attachment to the community and are more likely to continue their support. People are more likely to contribute money when they know who and what the money is for. There is also the fact that people are paying the money not just to help out, but to travel and experience another culture, both worthy goals.

For more information about volunteering, there is a guide to ethical volunteering that gives tips on selecting an organization. The Ecua Traveler also has tips for making a difference as a volunteer. Most of the tips are for long term volunteers, but some can be applied to short term volunteering.