Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

The value of voluntourism

Posted by mikeonpurpose on February 26, 2011


Blogger Scott Gilmore criticizes the voluntourism industry with a litany of complaints that are commonly leveled at overseas volunteerism, for example arguing that people who go on these sorts of trips are unskilled workers who cannot do the work of local professionals and that they also take jobs away from the locals, and also that voluntourism operators are just expensive middlemen.

There were several excellent comments in response to what he wrote that probably address the issue better than I can.  I responded to these criticisms not directly in his blog, but rather in comments in another blog, but I think what I had to say is worth repeating here as well, because while I think that Gilmore’s criticisms could have validity depending on the type of voluntourism that is on offer, I also think he to a great extent misses the point of what legitimate voluntourism is or should be about.  More specifically, my experiences with Global Citizens Network and El Porvenir really do not jibe with his criticisms.  I think it is unfortunate that a lot of misconceptions about voluntourism get bandied about, based on generalizations and misunderstandings.

Here is what I wrote:

The reputable non-profit voluntourism organizations have a philosophy that understands the issues involved with professional work versus unskilled volunteer labor. When I went down to Nicaragua with an organization that does water sanitation projects, the project was really managed by professional labor. Our role as volunteers was subsidiary and carefully supervised, and more importantly, our role was as much or more about community partnership. When voluntourism operators are focused on cultural exchange, bridging international differences, and partnership, a lot of those objections that you cited go away.

It’s great if people want to go off on their own to a foreign land and volunteer directly at a site, but that kind of volunteer work is different than that offered by reputable voluntourism organizations. It’s a different kind of focus that is not just about the labor–the labor is really part of a complete package that focuses on community issues.

And for many people, traveling overseas to another country, where one speaks the language poorly if at all, where crime rates are high and the infrastructure is poor, there is value added in being part of a group of people who travel there together, where personal safety is paramount, where translation services are available, and where community exchange and learning activities can be incorporated into the overall schedule of activities.

I think both kinds of volunteering–the group and community focused, and the individual traveling on their own to donate their labor–have their place.

I also like what a commenter named Sinead had to say in response to this issue.  I will repeat part of it here:

With these projects and interactions, friendships are built, skills and knowledge shared and most importantly, solidarity, a sign that they’ve not been forgotten. The volunteers work and live in the community, spend there money at local venders, walk the streets and talk with the community. I spent 13 months in Haiti over 2 projects and the chances are the “blanc” walking the streets, hanging out at local venders are volunteers working for small grassroots organisations, and although the budgets might be small the impact they have on the community is large. The org I worked with is based in Leogane, the epicentre of the Haiti earthquake, and well known and respected amongst the local community although maybe not so much amongst the larger NGO’s (I am guessing thats because there may be some with similar views to Scott). Because of the relationship which the volunteers built up with the community, they were the only org invited by the mayor to attend the 1st year memorial, which was a huge honour.

Volunteering is much more than the end product, a school , a shelter, a cleared foundation. They boost the local economy by supporting small businesses, they build relationships, support local communities, fund raise and advocate and share their stories so that those effected by disaster and poverty are not forgotten.  (emphasis added)

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