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Voluntourism: A Brief Overview of Harms and Next Steps

By Daisy Liu


The allure of a flashily titled international volunteering mission is one that many are aware of: from the bombardment of advertisements on social media to well-meaning advice-givers. However, in recent years, the adverse effects of such missions are becoming more and more recognised and a term “voluntourism” was coined to encompass these questionably planned and executed programs.  


Harms of voluntourism


Voluntourism can be viewed as the product of a neglect for best practices when it comes to humanitarian services abroad. Unfortunately, as the resulting harms are generally invisible and borne mainly by the host community, they tend to go unseen and unaddressed by any party with power.  

Potential harms include:

  1. Allowing untrained and unqualified volunteers to perform tasks far beyond their skill level

  2. Perpetuation of an unwarranted sense of superiority among the volunteers 

  3. Deprivation of the ability of the host communities to develop independently

  4. Diversion of resources - that could have been allocated to host community - to the  volunteers whose presence is unnecessary 

  5. Risks to the safety of the volunteers due to bad program planning

Many of the above harms are demonstrated in the worldwide reaction to the 2010 Haiti earthquake that unfortunately translated to inconveniences for the non-governmental organisations already present.


Future actions


Unfortunately, the concept of short-term volunteering being beneficial and morally correct is one that is deeply ingrained. Correspondingly, the main obstacle to changing the status quo arises from breaking the above mindset. To this end, changes can be made at each level of authority involved. This includes actions at the level of the participants, the higher education institutions, the volunteering organisations, the governments, and the host community themselves.


The participants


As mentioned above, the idea of humanitarian contribution is one that is highly romanticised in the minds of most people. This, combined with the fact that volunteering abroad is considered a very impressive life experience creates an incredibly strong incentive that then feeds the voluntourism industry. Therefore, any interventions at this level of the chain of conditions that lead to voluntourism need to focus on eradicating the two mindsets mentioned above. Past efforts include social media awareness campaigns and information disseminated by more reputable non-governmental organisations that educate participants on the threat to their own safety and ways to distinguish between good and bad programming. 


Higher education institutions


In the case of students seeking to embellish their resumes, the aforementioned need for change at the participant level can be catalysed by action at the level of higher education institutions. Specifically, this can be done through a shift in focus from having taken part in the volunteer mission itself to the impact made by the student. Interviews, for example, could require more than simply naming the experience but also an explanation of the impact made and exactly what the student did while on the trip. Though far from fail-safe, this would greatly aid in the differentiation between those who are truly passionate and stringent about adherence to best practices from those who are less concerned.


Volunteering organisations


As the liaison between the host communities and volunteers, volunteering organisations can play a huge role in changing the status quo. For example, changes to protocol can be made to better prepare volunteers and to better fit the needs of the community in a way that is safe, sustainable, and culturally sensitive. Though applications already exist for most volunteer excursions, many organisations would benefit from an even more stringent screening process followed by further education and training beyond the typical safety procedures such as brief courses on the individual communities themselves and their cultural contexts. The participants should also be made aware of the legal implications and repercussions of their actions should they deviate from the expected behaviour.


Governments and international organisations


Governments, both in the host countries and the countries from which the volunteer missions originate, can be very powerful actors in ensuring adherence to best practices. Namely, they hold authority and the ability to speak at many different tables, both internationally and within their own country. Thus, they can collaborate with volunteer organisations to effectively increase the level of qualification necessary for embarking on a volunteering trip. This would disincentivize a large portion of the undedicated volunteers. 


To begin, on the participants’ side, the introduction of a certification process akin to First Aid or Babysitting would also be beneficial to ensuring that all involved have at least a baseline level of knowledge in best practices and how to conduct themselves in a host community. Conversely, on the side of the host community, establishing stronger ties between them and the government so that protection can be extended and actions can be taken if volunteer missions prove more harmful than beneficial. 


In comparison to the governments of individual countries, the roles of international organisations are comparatively slightly smaller as they largely cannot directly intervene in the going-ons of a nation. However, if exercised correctly, they can still be very helpful in the process. For example, though the role of WHO is more advisatory coordinating in nature, in this case it can play a powerful role in creating expectations and defining norms for ethical participation in volunteering missions that can then be disseminated to all member states. 


Host community


Among the various stakeholders in this situation, the host community is the one that is most easily ignored and glossed over. Communications with these communities have shown a lack of understanding of what exactly is to be expected from a volunteer mission. This then exacerbates the lack of adherence to best practices. By educating host communities on their rights and authority in this situation, they can play a part in standing up for themselves and notifying the aforementioned authorities when insufficient attention is paid. This will ensure that volunteer work is beneficial and not harmful. 


Conclusions


In recent years, the word “voluntourism” has been used with an increasingly negative context to denote volunteering missions that take place in foreign countries but are ill-fit to actually meet the needs of the community that they are said to help. However, it is important to note that none of the parties involved, save for companies that are using the guise of humanitarian aid solely for the purpose of financial gain, should be demonised. As with many other problems, lack of adherence to best practices in volunteering abroad stems not from maliciousness but a simple lack of understanding which then leads to choices and actions that cause unforeseen harms. Unfortunately, these harms are often invisible, making them essentially ignorable until more visible voices choose to make a stand in their place.  


Making changes to the status quo will predictably result in large short-term cost and long-term loss in profit to many parties, especially the volunteering organisations, thereby disincentivizing action. Thus, an immense amount of dedication to best practices and effective contributions to the growth of the host community are necessary to truly shift the predominant mindset.



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