“Iwill never retweet appeals that treat poor children as opportunities to enhance Westerners CVs”. Those were the words of author J.K. Rowling in a stream of tweets in August 2016 after she was asked to endorse a charity offering volunteer opportunities in orphanages. This condemnation of the growing trend of young volunteers from wealthy countries, many of them gap year students, heading to the developing world to fulfil short-term projects has surfaced and resurfaced several times in recent years.

The so-called ‘voluntourism’ industry is worth an estimated $2.6 billion each year according to Save The Children. That’s more than the total GDP of Liberia, half the GDP of Malawi and one fifth of the GDP of Nicaragua.

The intentions of the vast majority of ‘voluntourists’ are likely to be genuinely philanthropic. The 1.6 million people that travel to volunteer in developing countries annually sometimes fork out thousands of pounds for their experience. To spend such a lot of money on a volunteer project rather than simply a summer-sun getaway is certainly admirable, and can perhaps only come from a genuine desire to make the positive impact that international voluntary organisations promote so fiercely.

Many fear that the framing of the wealthy Westerner as the benevolent giver serves to belittle host communities

Furthermore, as is one of the key selling points in recruiting volunteers, such experiences allow participants to drastically broaden their worldview. Cultivating global consciousness across a young generation in the developed world can perhaps only be a good thing. And although adjectives like “life-changing” have become somewhat cliché when we hear students talk about their gap year, it is hard to imagine that participants do not take what they have seen and experienced forward with them in some way when they leave the host country.

However unfortunately, these, the most obvious benefits of voluntourism, seemingly focus disproportionately upon the volunteer rather than the communities in need.

Cynics will say that volunteering can never be a completely altruistic act, and it can sometimes feel hard to argue to the contrary when voluntourism organisations use plentiful CV gains and a sense of personal gratification as their main selling points. Whilst it is possible for such motivations to complement a genuine desire to help those in need, personal gain necessarily complicates the role of the volunteer within the host community, and in the worst cases, can encourage people to participate for the wrong reasons.

Critique of voluntourism also raises ethical concerns regarding the worldview and stereotypes that result from such projects in the developing world. Many fear that the framing of the wealthy Westerner as the benevolent giver serves to belittle host communities. Rather than contributing to meaningful development, an imbalanced narrative of a poor South in desperate need of charity is perpetuated. This, in and of itself, is counterproductive to sustainable development.

The issues with voluntourism are practical too. Most participants are not trained or qualified for the work which they carry out- it is, for example, unlikely that many gap year students are trained in construction when they embark upon projects to build schools or libraries. In many instances, it is actually the case that unskilled volunteers are compromising the employment of qualified locals. Again then, we have to question exactly who is benefitting from voluntourism if not the local community.

‘Orphanage tourism’

Perhaps the most problematic form of voluntourism is ‘orphanage tourism’. This uncomfortably paradoxical phrase refers to the trend of volunteering in orphanages, as well as the practice of orphanages eliciting donations and sponsorships from holidaymakers.

Again, orphanage volunteers often have the best of intentions, and the desire to help some of the poorest children is certainly an admirable one. However, there is a growing sentiment that this practice has increasingly harmful effects upon the children involved.

For one, the short-term nature of many placements takes a heavy emotional toll on the children that are the target of voluntary efforts in the first place. Volunteers form emotional connections with orphans, and then leave as quickly as they arrived. As co-founder of ReThink Orphanages, Leigh Mathews explains “this repeated cycle of connection and abandonment really contributes to a really low self-esteem for these children”.

In addition, and more worryingly still, there is evidence to suggest that the generosity of volunteers and tourists has actually proliferated the exploitation of orphans for financial gain.

Cambodia is one country which has come under the spotlight in this regard. Reportedly, the number of orphanages across the country increased by 60% between 2005-2015, with half of these concentrated in typically touristic destinations. During this same period, Cambodia’s GDP has grown by nearly $11.76 billion, life expectancy at birth has risen by over five and a half years, and the fertility rate has dropped by over 0.6. If development is thriving, why is the number or orphanages growing?

Cambodia: a case study for a country popular with ‘voluntourists’

Increasingly, evidence points towards a simple answer: corruption. The ReThink Orphanages Network estimates that of the 8 million children in residential care across the world, 80% have living family. Some organisations have reported instances where ‘orphans’ are bought or leased from parents, only to be exploited, and in some cases, even abused, by orphanage owners, in order to capitalise on the generosity of donations and line their own pockets. In such cases, it is doubtful how much of the money the ‘orphans’ see.

Thankfully, with growing concern surrounding the ethics of ‘orphanage tourism’, organisations have begun to take action. Last year, World Challenge, the largest school-based volunteer company in the world, brought an end to high school students visiting orphanages. Indeed, in the September of last year, a committee in the Australian parliament went so far as to appeal to the government to ban orphanage tourism altogether as a matter of urgency. Rather than financially bolstering orphanages through volunteer projects, Save The Children and ReThink Orphanages advise positive action supporting organisations that provide community- rather than residential-based care.

So what can we do?

It’s a troublesome situation to say the least, as the sentiments behind voluntourism are, for the most part, productive and genuinely altruistic. Ultimately, the desire to make a difference to those living in poverty should absolutely not be dissuaded. However, there is a growing feeling that we need to seriously rethink voluntourism to facilitate more ethical grass roots change.

Save The Children advises that those looking to volunteer in the developing world ask themselves the right questions before they make a commitment; most importantly that they consider whether they are setting out for the right reasons, and whether they have the appropriate skills to make a productive contribution. It is vital to ask the right questions of the volunteering organisation too, or better still, to bypass such organisations and contact projects directly where possible.

However, another more sustainable solution could be to omit the volunteering element of voluntourism altogether.

The so-called ‘voluntourism’ industry is worth an estimated $2.6 billion each year

To go to a developing country, but to go as a tourist. To stay in a locally run hotel and contribute money to the local economy. To aid development, yes, but without considering it an act of pity or charity. And to continue to donate money to development projects, but to make sure it is going to the right places- for example towards facilitating family-based rather than residential care, or towards providing employment for local workers.

With all respect to those who have travelled as voluntourists, it remains that we need to take steps to eradicate the margin for exploitation and dangerous power imbalances in order to go forwards making a difference in the developing world. To do that, we need to entirely rethink our role in aiding development. Whilst that might not translate to something that we can put on our CVs or on social media, it might just be the key to kick-starting real change.

bookmark me