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We’ve all seen the photos on our Facebook feed: bright-eyed, well-meaning friends post endless pictures of themselves laughing with African children, petting a lion or striking a quirky pose with a group of other young, mostly white people.
These selfies act as advertisements for volunteer tourism companies, who charge participants a fee for the privilege of travelling to a developing nation to volunteer in an impoverished community.
And it is a privilege. Fees for volunteer trips are typically in the low thousands, with some travellers paying upwards of $5,000 for a few weeks abroad.
But as the practice of overseas volunteering — known as “voluntourism” — continues to rise in popularity, critics are increasingly calling attention to the negative impact it can have on local communities.
One company that offers such volunteer trips is Reach Out Volunteers, which held an information session on campus on Sept. 24.
The company’s fees range from US$1,500 for a week to over US$4,000 for 35 days, with the average cost of a two-week volunteer trip coming in at US$2,150 or C$2,878.
Prospective volunteers can choose from locations in South Africa, Mozambique, Cambodia and Peru, and activities include building orphanages, caring for elephants or tracking wild game, with lots of free time for excursions.
To some, it sounds like a win-win situation. You get all the excitement of travelling to a new country, and you’re also helping out the local population.
Attempts to contact several former and prospective Reach Out volunteers went unanswered, but a 2015 promotional video documents some of their thoughts.
“I don’t think anything quite compares to volunteering in a Third World country and actually spending your money to lighten the burden on other people’s lives and make it easier for them,” says one volunteer.
“It’s like a vacation except that you’re also doing so much good at the same time in a community that you probably wouldn’t travel to otherwise,” says another.
Except that a lot of the time, these volunteers might not actually be helping. A growing number of experts in international development and tourism, along with former volunteers, believe that voluntourists can actually cause more damage than good.
“Voluntourism is harmful to local communities, and the benefits are almost entirely for the participants,” says Robin Pierro, a Ryerson grad and former senior program manager at Journalists for Human Rights. “People in transitioning countries are not the guinea pigs of western youth.” Her film about voluntourism gone wrong, T’ikibamba, won Ryerson’s Best Documentary Award in 2010.
Voluntourism takes place in many countries, across a number of volunteering activities, and can cost varying amounts of money. Take a look at the infographic above to find out more about the travelling trend.
Perhaps the most pernicious type of voluntourism — and often the most beloved by volunteers — is working at orphanages.
Child care work, in which unskilled volunteers are sent to local orphanages to teach and take care of young children, is the most popular volunteer activity, according to a recent survey done by Volunteering Solutions.
“You are working with children who have experienced trauma and abandonment, and every time a new group of volunteers come in and then leave a few weeks later, those children are being forced to feel abandoned all over again,” says the documentarian.
Peter Jowett, the chairman of Reach Out Volunteers charity, agrees that volunteers should not be working with orphans.
“We have banned volunteering with orphans. We don’t do it,” Jowett says.
Instead, volunteers build or add onto orphanages or “crèches,” which are like daycares where local children who would otherwise be “left to their own devices” are offered shelter and food.
But volunteers still spend time with the children and attachments can form in the weeklong span that they are there. While the kids are facing day-to-day struggles, volunteers passing through are not necessarily looking for serious commitments — the name of one project is “Orphanage and Game Park Experience.”
In a particularly troubling instance, when volunteers arrive to find the school is on holiday and there are no children around, “a few friends chase around the community and try and gather as many children as they can to come and spend time with us here,” a July 2013 blog entry on Reach Out’s South Africa site reads.
“We feel like celebrities in the village,” a Reach Out volunteer gushed on the blog in July 2015.
“Of course, because these kids are too easy to get attached to, we all had the hardest time saying goodbye … They all just waved at us and jumped around as if we would be back tomorrow,” the blogger later wrote.
Volunteers seem to seldom stop and think about how the children will feel when they wake up the next day and realize their new friends, who lavished attention on them all week, are gone. Again.
Another criticism of voluntourism — especially projects that have volunteers doing construction work — is that travellers take jobs away from local people.
According to Bob Hepburn, a journalist at the Toronto Star who has written about voluntourism, money from foreigners could subsidize local people instead.
“There are better ways to help than coming in on a two-week, expensive, feel good project for yourself,” Hepburn says.
But Jowett argues that building projects actually create jobs in the local community.
He points out that when Reach Out Volunteers build an orphanage in South Africa, jobs are created for local labourers and tradesmen who will help the volunteers, drivers who will pick volunteers up from the airport and local women who are paid to make meals for the volunteers.
According to Jowett, 50 per cent of a volunteer’s fees go to the local community.
“The villages win, the students win, communities win,” Jowett says.
But why is the program fee so expensive? When I travelled to Costa Rica in 2010 to volunteer at a sloth sanctuary for two weeks, it cost only a few hundred dollars — and that provided me with a place to stay and dinner every night.
It may be that volunteers are paying for organized excursions and activities, like safaris or treks to Angkor Wat. In other cases, the company might be pocketing a substantial amount of that money.
Xavier Font, who co-authored a study published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, told British newspaper the Telegraph in February 2014 that “the most responsible organizations price responsibly, as they are transparent about their cost structure and income.
“The less responsible organizations tend to hide the origin of their costs, which can also hide excessive profit margins,” he continued.
CBC’s Doc Zone recently created a list of dos and don’ts when it comes to voluntourism, explaining that over 100,000 Canadians will travel abroad on volunteer trips this year.
“If you’re not qualified to do (a job) at home, don’t do it abroad. It should feel like applying for a job and not booking a holiday,” the article advises.
Volunteers should also not be doing a job locals can do and in order to make the greatest positive impact, they should consider staying a month or more.
Tom Griffin, an assistant professor at Ryerson’s school of hospitality and tourism management, believes voluntourism “can be very helpful,” provided students ask lots of questions to make sure projects are actually helping local communities.
“Students need to ask the company, how are the projects chosen? Is this a project that’s been asked for by a local community?”
Griffin believes volunteer tourists “have to acknowledge that part of the reason they’re doing this is to benefit themselves.
“It looks good on your resumé, (it) looks good when you’re at a party speaking to people. And that’s fine because it’s part of the culture we live in,” he says.
But good intentions can be manifested in other ways. If every volunteer on a 15-person Reach Out trip donated $5,000 instead of spending it on flights, program fees and excursions, the local community or NGO would receive $75,000.
“If your intention is to truly help people in a community that needs help, then you should just donate that money,” says Griffin.