Luke Armstrong | May 2, 2016
When I worked for a Guatemala-based charity that hosted 500 annual homebuilders, many of those international volunteers arrived with the same guilt glazed question: "Instead of spending $1000 to fly across the world to build a house, why not pay someone locally to build more than one house with the money saved from my group's airfare?"
A voluntourist is a short-term traveler who comes to do something to better the people or the environment of a place. A voluntourist is by definition a tourist. But, is tourism the worst or the best thing ever to happen to the less developed world? It depends on your perspective.
Where the Voluntourist Came From
Voluntourism is new phenomenon that came as an offshoot of the modern tourism industry entangling itself with the global development industry.
The international tourism industry is a post-WWII phenomenon. Since 1950, international tourism has grown thirtyfold, due to increased affluence of the developed countries’ middle class.
Global tourism is a huge economic driver and cultural disseminator. In 2004, 764 million tourists traveled across international borders for leisure and recreation. Cumulatively, they spent some $6 trillion dollars according to UNWTO & WTTC. As international political economist Monica DeHart says, “Voluntary travel across international borders produces the single largest transnational flow of human beings in the world.”
Most of the planes are filled with Western nations going on holiday. Some of those planes are taking spring breakers to Cancun to drink tequila and exercise poor judgment. But every year, 1.6 million people aboard those planes are traveling to volunteer.
Volunteering abroad isn't all finger-painted rainbows and hippy songs around the campfire. There are some who seriously question if volunteering abroad is a net gain or loss for the world.
The New York Times saw the issue in the stark terms of "The Voluntourist’s Dilemma" The author describes schools built without funding to pay teachers, orphanages using children as fronts for funds, and damaging errors made by name brand charities. How, the article asks, could you, one person with two weeks of annual paid leave, possibly think that you could make a difference abroad?
That's a silly question that comes from a serious reality. It's silly because the answer is, yes, without a doubt, you can make a positive difference abroad in a short time. But it's serious because you aren't guaranteed you will. You will need to be smart about how you go about acting on your good intentions.
In this world there are good people who run good charities poorly. Because of this, some charities and charitable work gets a deserved bad rap.
But when charity and volunteerism is done right — wow friends! In one week, I saw a volunteer nurse a severely malnourished 6-year-old with cerebral palsy back to life. In three days, I saw a family of four Americans build a house for a struggling Guatemalan family. If the Americans had stayed home and sent money, they could have built three more houses. But by thinking only in sheer numbers, they would have never built the friendship of understanding that blossomed over those three days of building. They would have never fallen into the mutually enlightening relationship that they did.
The Guatemalan family got to meet a family from the America they'd heard so much about and see that, like them, they were hard-working people who shared a proud love. The American family got to see that the "poor" they'd heard so much about laughed at the same jokes. Juan constantly pretending to hit himself in the face with a hammer was hilarious to both families.
Both the Guatemalan and American families had their understanding of the world irrevocably altered by getting to meet each other. The Americans got to use their position in life to help someone else, and the Guatemalans got to know the family who came to build a house. This doesn't happen when you just send a donation.
These true stories represent the intangibles of voluntourism. And while it's easy to fill an article and argument with all the things you or the charity you are volunteering with can screw up along the way — a lot can go right. It could end up being a positive life transforming experience for the visited and the visitor.
Humans don't spend much time considering, "How does me being me affect you being you?" Part of the "Voluntourist Dilemma" comes in answering that question in the international travel context. Answering involves knowing how to end up with an organization that is using your time and money to do something worthwhile.
As it is with buying a car battery, so it is with international volunteerism — being an informed consumer will make the difference.
In a short time, you can really make a positive impact in a country and culture you know relatively nothing about if you don't leave your experience up to chance.
Most charities put out a convincing argument that they are a good organization worth your investment of time and treasure. But to really see what a charity thinks important, see where they spend their money. See how much the director earns.
There is a difference between a non-profit (a charity) and a business that does charitable work. For US taxpayers a 501(c)(3) is an organization that is tax exempt. Be wary of organizations who charge large "program fees" as part of your volunteering with them. Do they want your help or your money?
For a charity, it's normal to put an easy system in place that invites a volunteer to reach out to his/her network to help them fundraise. Some charities mismanage the volunteers they have, using them to do busy work, only because they know volunteers will help with fundraising. If you ever spend your volunteer time abroad doing janitorial or housekeeping work, you are likely not with a very compelling organization.
There are lots of businesses in the tourism industry that also do great work in the countries they operate. I'm biased in the extreme on this issue and personally believe there's no reason to do business with a travel company that isn't set up to also make the destination and the client better off because of their interaction.
In my own life, a friend finally convinced me, and we started a small tour company called Expeditioner Tours. Part of my getting on board was realizing I could play a part in creating a context for the type of travel I believe in. We sell custom adventure tours and give 10% of every revenue dollar to a compelling local charity that our tourgoers spend an afternoon meeting with. Our mission statement is that we want to give people who go on their tours an experience that will endure as one of the most positively transformative experiences of their lives. In this way, our whole company is set up to change the world.
Tourists, whether they know it or not, are at the crux of the clash of traditional and modern cultures. Regardless of the ivory tower discussions on the matter, tourism is here to stay. The conversations about tourism's impact are interesting, but the more productive questions are questions posed to the self that ask, "How can I be a better kind of traveler?"
Voluntourism is a better form of traveling. Sometimes it involves volunteering in a specific capacity, such as being an English teacher at a school for disadvantaged youth. Other times, it's less formal and might involve showing kindness to everyone you meet along the way.
You can escape the city by flying to a beach, but you can't escape the political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental impact of your trip. So use your savvy to make that impact positive. That's the difference between voluntourism and tourism.
Should you decide to become a "voluntourist" it's quite likely you'll want to protect your belongs and have assurance you'll have medical insurance. Check out Liaison Travel Medical.
Luke Maguire Armstrong is the author of "The Nomad's Nomad." He has spent the last decade traveling, writing and designing, and funding philanthropic programs around the world.