Recently, an article published in The Varsity criticized the procedure and structure of current “voluntourism” programs — trips that send inexperienced individuals abroad to conduct development work. The piece touched on valuable arguments that attest to the questionable motives, efficacy, and ethics encompassed in such programs.
The article also suggested, however, that the solution to these associated complications is to steer away from voluntourism programs and to invest in alternative, sustainable solutions instead. Despite the validity of the concerns raised, this may be an ill-advised proposal. A more practical, efficient approach would be to improve voluntourism programs by addressing the issues within them.
Voluntourism has long been criticized for its inability to offer the crucial component of sustainability. It is considered a short-term solution that scratches the surface of complex problems, by only locking in the developing world into a pool of self-perpetuating issues.
Despite this criticism, voluntourism and sustainability are no longer mutually exclusive, because many organizations have begun to evolve and address such concerns. For example, Global Brigades utilizes a novel holistic development to incorporate economic programs, professionally-designed public health infrastructure, and locally-run medical care — all while students provide assistance.
Through this kind of approach, the fear of tourists snatching jobs from local professionals is attenuated, economic growth and improved health status is sustained for a longer period of time, and students are able to benefit from valuable shadowing experiences.
Considering the absence of research on this topic, we should refrain from rejecting voluntourism programs without ruminating the perspective of the receiving countries on a case-by-case basis.
However, criticism targeting the inept role of student participants continues. Whether it be constructing a well, teaching English, or sorting pharmaceutical drugs, they are bound to perform at an amateur pace if they do not possess prior experience. While it may be ideal to hire local professionals instead it is not always practical to do so in the short or long-term.
Development projects require funding, and such operations are only feasible with the funding that voluntourists bring with them. Without this financial support, services cannot be provided, local professionals cannot be hired, and these projects simply cannot be executed.
Passive donations from individuals who do not take part in the work are uncommon, and funding continues to be a considerable hurdle for development organizations. Consequently, the current combination of workers from abroad and local professionals is the most logical strategy for the completion of these programs.
Ambiguity also arises when it comes to common issues associated with voluntourism. While many are concerned about taking jobs from local professionals, studies to assess the statistical significance and actual impacts of the programs are principally absent. Many critics of voluntourism also remain unaware of the organizations adopting novel, developmental, and sustainable methodologies.
Assuming what is best for receiving countries without due consideration constitutes a type of paternalism.
Considering the absence of research on this topic, we should refrain from rejecting voluntourism programs without ruminating the perspective of the receiving countries on a case-by-case basis; assuming what is best for receiving countries without due consideration constitutes a type of paternalism.
In some cases, voluntourism is appreciated. For instance, surveys by hospital staff in one study from Honduras did not mention any long-term negative consequences of voluntourism programs. Honduras Weekly, a news site, published an article that called for church missions, medical brigades, and student volunteer teams to help with various complications stemming from economic and health problems.
Further, properly executed voluntourism can foster growth and development in the studies of global health, while also teaching participants to appreciate cultural diversity. For example, those engaged in volunteer trips related to medicine may be more likely to shift their studies to global health, pursue primary care in medicine than specialities, and share their experiences with other students and faculty members of the institute.
Even though adjustments are certainly needed, steering away from an economically impactful industry that handles nearly 180 billion dollars annually is not the most realistic or prudent solution.
The voluntourism industry can spread novel ideas, discussions, and learnings to institutes in various countries, which allows new programs and policies to develop. The University of Toronto has started to incorporate courses and curriculum revolving around voluntourism, and more advanced trends such as “experteering” — a program focused on volunteering expertise — are starting to sprout.
Though it may be hard to see through the layers of concern surrounding voluntourism, it may not be as detrimental as it appears. Even though adjustments are certainly needed, steering away from an economically impactful industry that handles nearly 180 billion dollars annually is not the most realistic or prudent solution.
Instead, we should lengthen the time of engagement, establish stringent and clear roles for voluntourists, and implement thorough training for participants, so that the programs deliver the most impactful contributions as possible.
Not only can we transform voluntourism to supplement other support programs, but we can also shape this enormous industry into a more efficient tool that better accommodates global needs.
Steven Choi is a third-year student at New College studying Human Biology, Nutrition, and Chemistry. He was a member of the University of Toronto Global Brigades; the views expressed here are his own.