Volunteer Tourism: Friend or Foe to the ‘Voluntoured?’

Whether or not it is actually a good idea to participate in certain volunteer programs is a question that is sometimes overlooked. In Xela there are so many opportunities to volunteer that it’s enough to make your head spin. When you meet someone new and ask them how they will be spending their time here it is common to hear, “Oh I might volunteer somewhere for a few weeks.” I came here with a specific purpose in mind, but many people just show up and have a hard time deciding where to dedicate their time. I thought more about this issue after a friend recently shared his experience with me of volunteering at an orphanage. He pointed out that he and many of his fellow volunteers would only be here a short time (a few weeks). This made him worry that while his work might be bringing him a sense of fulfillment it would only leave the orphans he was getting to know worse off in the end. I am hesitant to even explore this topic because I don’t enjoy finding fault with trying to help others- but it is more complicated than it seems to make a positive difference. He felt that he did not have the time or a specific skill (such as medicine, education, etc) that would improve these children’s lives and it was already apparent they were getting attached to him. While bringing a smile to someones face is important (especially for these kids that are so often neglected everything but basic necessities in their orphanages), forming a bond that cannot really be developed can do more harm than good. In the end he decided to volunteer for Habitat For Humanity because he figured that you can’t argue with the progress of building a wall for someone’s future home.

So the question to consider is: will the volunteer project at hand create a sustainable difference or is it a way to pass the time that also happens to make you feel good?

I decided to research what others have written about this topic online and came across this anecdote that also expresses my point:
“An organization was interested in bringing a truckload of used clothing to the mission so that they could distribute it directly to local families. Norma [a worker for the mission] politely thanked them for their interest, then explained that the mission did not support any kind of free hand-outs of items. She offered to take the clothing then sell it at a very inexpensive price at their local thrift store; this way it would preserve the dignity of local residents and reduce dependency on outside sources. The response from the organizer on the other end was adamant: they wanted to set up a table with the truck and ‘personally hand the clothing to the needy folks.’ At that point, Norma explained to me, she knew the phone call was yet another from people who wanted to, in her classic use of the local vernacular, ‘Pet the Critters.’ Cases abound of organizations that may have the best of intentions but a total lack of understanding of how their actions affect the dignity of local residents.”

People with the best intentions can forget to focus on the true needs of a community rather than just what they want to do to be ‘helpful’. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud anyone who donates their used clothing or chooses to spend their time while traveling working on a volunteer project. However my opinion is that how many people choose what to get involved needs deeper consideration past what sounds good on the surface. Important factors to consider are: whether or not a specific project is linked with a sustainable organization that has roots in the community and whether or not you are qualified for the job as a volunteer. Many organizations are so eager to take volunteers that it will be up to you to determine where your skill set and availability can do the most good.

In my case, my educational background (which includes knowledge of textiles, clothing construction, marketing, public relations, sustainable fashion, women’s studies, etc) and the amount of time I have to volunteer made TRAMA Textiles a good fit. Some people are pretty harsh critics of ‘volunteer tourism’ but I cannot encourage others enough to travel and to give back to the places where they are traveling to whenever possible. Just remember that while it is right and necessary for your work to provide meaning to you, it is also necessary for your work to provide results for the people you are serving. Today you cannot do everything, but today you can do something.

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One thought on “Volunteer Tourism: Friend or Foe to the ‘Voluntoured?’

  1. Very good story emily!! This is a great topic of conversation. “Ecotourism” and the like are growing everyday. I’m glad you’ve shined more light on the topic.

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