I and my colleague are sitting at the stand at some local fare of opportunities for youth. We are bored - there are not so many people around, and we take a leaflet from some organization. It offers voluntary projects in distant places - Latin America, Africa, Oceania, and many others to clean beaches and save turtles. The photos are great, the leaflet is really well-made, the conditions look great. Why do I have a bitter feeling after this one? Maybe because there is a solid price next to it.
Volunteering became commercialized - it’s obvious. I doubt it could be another way around, since the new generation is very proactive and eager to change the world, and the number of issues in the world is quite big. There are no free volunteering projects because someone somewhere still pays for it - for example, I’m writing this article in Germany thanks to Erasmus+, sponsored by EU taxpayers. But when in the end you pay money to take part in a voluntary project, you have to be sure that what you’ve just paid for is really going to serve a good cause.
Of course, we all love to travel and we want to explore some places which don’t look like what we used to see every day. But when you see a short-term ecological project in Brazil or Ecuador where volunteers will have to “help the local community to clean the area” or “work together with local volunteers to take care of endangered species of turtles” - stop right there and think. Aviation is responsible for a total of 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change, and due to the growing market demand, this number can grow up to 15% by the year 2050. Does it make sense to go for such a long trip to help someone to do such simple manual work? Are you really sure your volunteering impact there can overdo the amount of emissions caused by your trip there and back? Are there no people who could do it at the place instead of you? And who will really benefit from it - the world, the local community or an organization providing the trip?
Behind ecological issues, there are far more. Economically, volunteering is usually beneficial for the local community in the short-run, however, on a long-term scale, it has quite a negative impact. Some studies show, that by creating a constant flow of volunteers, such projects often take places of locals who could’ve been employed for this work. The costs, spend to provide volunteers a chance to work for a local community would often be much better spent on the actual needs of the community.
Sometimes irresponsible voluntourism can, instead of empowering local people, make them even more dependent on the help of others. In this article, the authors give an example of the healthcare system in Ghana, where people saw so many volunteers and international missions providing healthcare for free, it made them think they can forget about medical insurance. But such volunteering initiatives are not constant, and these people were left vulnerable in between missions or when some mission would close its operation in the country.
And, of course, because it became an industry, voluntourism can prevent help being delivered where it’s actually needed, instead of focusing on well-reachable and good-looking-for-a-photo communities. Even more, the problems can be created artificially just to attract people’s attention and solidarity. It is already a case in Nepal, where, according to UNICEF, up to 85% of children in orphanages have at least 1 living parent.
Does it mean volunteering is bad? No! Does it mean volunteering on an international level is bad? No again! Does it mean volunteering should be more responsible? Yes!
The idea of traveling and helping at the same time is great, but if you’re doing something to fulfill both reasons, keep an eye on it to be actually fulfilling both. Ask yourself, are you gonna be there long enough to actually help someone and make something distinguishable. Ask yourself, if you have some skills or experience, which can actually be crucial there. Ask yourself, if you can trust the project and make sure you are going there not for beautiful selfies but to do something specific.
And of course, young people can travel and even take selfies. Just make sure you realize your real purpose when going for a volunteering project and don’t mix voluntary organizations with travel agencies - otherwise, your good intentions in the heart can actually cause more harm than good.