From a young age, volunteering is always taught as a precious thing all humans should take part in.
Volunteer firefighters and PTA presidents are presented as heroes. Working for no money is thought of as the noble thing to do. Doing things for those who have been impacted by natural disaster or poor living conditions out of the kindness of your heart is the right thing to do.
I’m not criticizing these actions. That would make me some sort of monster, which I’m not. But the truth is that a majority of people who seek to live out this type of “hero” title are either doing it without proper research or for the complete wrong reasons.
Before I get into the deep stuff, let me first explain what voluntourism is. Many online sites define voluntourism as a way to combine aspects of volunteering and tourism, therefore creating the perfect experiences for those involved. The emphasis, of course, ends up being on those who are volunteering, not those they are supposed to be helping.
I’ll admit, the idea of being a voluntourist sounds fun. Making a difference while living abroad? Why not? And I’m definitely not the only person who thinks that voluntourism sounds like a smashing time. According to NPR, voluntourism is one of the fastest growing trends in travel today. More than 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending about $2 billion each year—that’s a shit-ton of money… probably enough to solve some of these problems that people are “volunteering” for in the first place…*cough cough*
I’m not saying those who participate or want to participate in voluntourism necessarily all have bad intentions. But, for the most part, they are volunteering for the wrong reason. The reason specifically being to make themselves look good.
You can spot these bastards out in a crowd: Their bios on social media probably involve some sort of Bible verse or the fact that they love travelling—meanwhile they’ve been out of the country once and only go to church on Easter and Christmas. They are also the ones whose profile pictures feature them and a small child from the country they “volunteered” in.
Jeez, why am I so judgy in this article?
The point is these people are easy to spot. This can be helpful because although they are terrible, they can be a great example of what not to do.
The main problem revolved around voluntourism is that it takes the focus off those who needed help. Suddenly, a week of hard work in Haiti is turned into a tropical get-away for the volunteers. Or a week helping refugees in Greece is turned into a beach trip with beautiful selfie lighting.
Do you see the problem?
I love travelling as much as the next person. I see the importance of wanderlust and getting to know this big and beautiful world. But that is precisely why I think the idea of travel should be separate from volunteering. You just can’t do both at the same time. At least not with a completely full and sincere heart which is needed to make a true difference in the world.
At my university, I am presented with 50+ opportunities to serve per year. As a Christian school, faith, learning and service are all very important components that each student should experience before graduating.
Trips to the Caribbean and Arizona (including a trip to the Grand Canyon) and many other beautiful places in the world are offered to the students by my school. I am often very intrigued by these trips, as these are locations are featured on my bucket list of places I’d love to go before I die.
But would I be taking these trips with a full heart? Absolutely not. Instead, my motives would be fueled by selfishness.
Americans are often viewed by other cultures as selfish. When they travel, Americans expect everyone to fit their needs and to speak English. This is part of the reason why voluntourism is really only adding to the problem. Other cultures think Americans are selfish because fundamentally, they are. If I’m being completely honest, Americans often want to help others, but in the end, helping themselves is what’s important.
But to be fair, voluntourism isn’t just an individual problem—it’s an industry problem, too. Industries know that people want to help, so they advertise countries that need “help” to promote the “saving the world” complex.
The commercials with the starving children and the Sarah McLaughlin songs make us think we’re helping. Combine the appeal to emotion with the appeal of a beautiful vacation and boom—tickets are bought and donations are made in a matter of seconds.
So yeah, when it comes down to it, maybe the intentions of volunteers are flawed. But the real question is: How can we change? Where can we go from here?
The first step is to do your research—and spoiler alert, this is often the first step to every process. If you do want to volunteer, and for the right reasons, you should probably find out if your help is needed in the first place. That way, not only is your money and time saved, but you can also be shown as less ignorant and give more help to those in need who need help.
You also have to look deep inside yourself. Read the itinerary of the trip you’re interested in. What sounds more appealing to you? The hard work, labor and sincere moments with those in the culture? Or the trips to the malls, local monuments and beaches? If your answer is the latter versus the former, your heart might be in the wrong place.
More than anything, focus on making a change. Find a problem you care about. Are you deeply involved in your faith? Try missionary work. Are you into political issues? Try helping Syrian refugees. Do you care deeply for children? Try helping the orphans. When you volunteer for the things that are important for you, that’s when you start to save the world.