The Dark Side of Voluntourism

The Dark Side of Voluntourism

Pro-poor tourism has become a growing trend in the tourism industry in the last few years. If you are unfamiliar with the term, pro-poor tourism is any tourist activity designed to benefit underprivileged communities.  In many cases, these tourist activities often exploit the groups they are designed to benefit, or at the very least fail to deliver the intended assistance.

One example of pro-poor tourism is slum tourism which is driven by the desire of tourists to see how “real locals” live in shantytowns, townships, settlements, etc. Orphanage tourism is another example.

I lived and worked in Africa on and off for years, and orphanage tourism was a trend that I always struggled to tolerate.  Frequently, tourists who visit Africa long to see an orphanage.  Most developed countries don’t have orphanages anymore because governments have established alternative systems for caring for these children, such as foster care.  The lack of orphanages in communities that generate tourists has prompted the desire to see these institutions.  In fact, the demand by tourists to visit these facilities has created a two-fold need: 1. regular partnerships between tour operators and orphanages and 2. orphans (real or otherwise).

The first time I visited Congo, I had a travel agent organize my trip and requested he schedule some tours for me. The travel agent sent me a proposed itinerary which included a visit to an orphanage.  I responded and told him I wasn’t interested in seeing the orphanage.  He was dumbfounded: “What do you mean? ALL tourists go to the orphanage!”

I explained I had visited many orphanages across Africa and worked at one regularly in Botswana (where I was living at the time), thus I had no need to see an orphanage in Congo.  He was noticeably put out: “But the orphans are expecting you.”

I’m not saying for sure the orphans in Congo weren’t authentic, but there was certainly that possibility.  Orphanage tourism can only be successful if visitors actually see children.  While many orphanages are legitimate, some organizations which host tourists utilize children to “play the part” of orphans despite having at least one living parent.

These orphan actors are taught to beg for food and money in order to elicit donations.  In-kind donations (clothing, school supplies, toys) are typically sold, so the kids never actually benefit from them.  The one benefit these “fake” orphans generally do enjoy is education, at least until they are too old to tug at the heartstrings of visitors, at which point they are kicked to the curb and replaced by younger “orphans.”

For the real do-gooders out there, there is always the possibility of voluntourism which involves spending part of your holiday completing community service.  While I have a low opinion of slum tourism and orphanage tourism, I consider voluntourism to be the worst possible form of pro-poor tourism.  There is nothing that irritates me more than meeting a trust fund baby who tells me, “I’m going to build a school in Uganda for five days then I’m spending the rest of the month on safari and at the beach.”  When people tell me this kind of thing you can see from the look on their face they expect praise for their so-called selfless contribution to society.

A few years ago I was on a plane and the young woman next to me told me about her upcoming voluntourism trip.  I believe I involuntarily cringed or scowled at her because she asked me what was the problem.  I responded by asking her how much money she paid for the privilege of volunteering.  “$2,300.00”

The problem with voluntourism is that participants are often doing work for which they are unqualified.  I am sure building a fence or cleaning enclosures is not that hard.  But why do unskilled labor?  If you are going to give your time shouldn’t you at least be using your skillset?  If you are a teacher then teach something.  If you are a doctor, volunteer at a clinic.

Another objection I have to voluntourism programs is that they require volunteers to pay hefty sums for work which could be completed by someone who really needs that job.  For the $2,300 that girl spent to help build a school you could hire over 200 local people for a week who really need those jobs.  In many cases, voluntourists are not helping the local community, they are hurting it by robbing locals of paid positions. Not to mention, most voluntourism organizations are international, meaning the vast majority of that $2,300 is likely leaving the country and only benefitting the local economy in a very small capacity.

If you are considering a volunteer vacation, evaluate your options carefully.  Paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to paint a hospital might make you feel like you are doing some good, but there are probably hundreds or thousands of people who would jump at the opportunity to earn a buck or two to do that same job.  In most cases, voluntourism is not the answer to a community’s needs.

Published By
Kelly Virginia Phelan (Ph.D., Career Strategist)
Kelly Virginia Phelan, Ph.D. is a Job Interview Coach, Resume Writer, and Career Strategist. She is also the Founder of Winning Six Second Resumes. Visit her social media profiles or contact her on Show more