'Voluntourism' has exploded as the hottest travel trend and a rite of passage for gap year students, but experts say it could be doing more harm than good
Wanting to help is a common and admirable reaction when meeting communities who are doing it tough, or have limited opportunities open to them. It’s natural to be saddened by the struggles we become aware of while travelling. Many of us are moved enough to want to do whatever we can to help.
Each year, 1.6 million people volunteer overseas and voluntourism is considered the fastest growing ‘trend’ in travel. And for the most part, it’s happening with good intentions. However the negative impacts of voluntourism on children and communities are now coming to light thanks to initiatives like the ReThink Orphanages
network, of which Save the Children is a member.
So, what’s the problem with voluntourism?
Leigh Mathews, co-founder and coordinator of the ReThink Orphanages network, says if untrained volunteers are not equipped to deal with vulnerable children and families in their own country, it’s logical that the same standards must apply in developing countries.
The voluntourism industry is big business for travel companies, unwitting NGOs and – in some cases – corrupt, unregistered organisations. Voluntourists pay big bucks for the privilege of volunteering – sometimes up to $2,000 per week
– and the industry is worth an estimated $2.6 billion per year
. But while some people are profiting from voluntourism, there’s a very real risk that skilled locals miss out on employment because unskilled volunteers are filling their positions.
At 16 years old, Pippa Biddle volunteered to help build a library in Tanzania
. She and her friends took on the task, unskilled and untrained in construction. Skilled locals had to fix their work every night — essentially rebuilding the school themselves. She’s since written about the experience to help stop the potentially negative impacts of volunteering overseas.
This doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference in the world.
Many skilled professionals volunteer for NGOs to train and empower local staff, with very positive outcomes. Responsible volunteering is something that we encourage . But it’s important to remember your help should be fulfilling a need, and that the community in which you’re helping feels the benefit after you leave.
It’s also important to follow guidelines and protocol. Our very own Child Protection Adviser, Karen Flanagan, warns that far too many volunteers are not appropriately vetted to have contact with children, or don’t adhere to essential child protection practices.