Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Voluntourism: The Reason I am Anti- Volunteering

In my last blog post I explained the difficulties associated with poverty alleviation in Africa.  The way I see it, poverty alleviation (or the lack thereof) is only one piece of the puzzle.  The problem with Africa is a trifecta of evils disguised as “help.”  Volunteering and NGOs comprise the other two-thirds of the Un-holy Trinity of African Aid.  As I previously mentioned, at my recent conference in Mauritius I had a conversation with someone about poverty alleviation in Africa.  Well, it turns out volunteering and NGOs were also front and center at the conference, so I will address those phenomena in today and tomorrow’s posts.

In recent years, pro-poor tourism has emerged in the hospitality and tourism industry as a growing trend.  It has also become a topic of interest in academia and research, as evidenced by the many presentations at the Mauritius conference about pro-poor tourism efforts.
Pro-poor tourism is any tourist activity designed to benefit underprivileged communities.  However, in many cases, these tourist activities often exploit these groups, or at the very least fail to deliver the intended benefits.  For instance, several months back I wrote about slum tourism and the desire of tourists to see how “real locals” live in shantytowns, townships, settlements, etc.  In the months leading up to the World Cup there were several news reports about the anticipated interest of spectators visiting the favelas in Rio.  I haven’t seen any of the television coverage of the games, but since these types of worldwide sporting events often prompt journalists to address human interest stories in the region, I would expect some of you dedicated soccer fans out there have seen these types of broadcasts.

Orphanage tourism is another popular form of pro-poor tourism.  This is one of the tourism trends which really makes my stomach turn.  Many tourists who come to Africa (and other parts of the Third World) want to visit 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 which generate tourists has prompted the desire to see these institutions while on vacation.  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).
When I visited Congo in April I had a travel agent organize my trip and requested he schedule some tours for me.  Emmanuel 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 told him I had visited many orphanages across Africa and worked at one regularly in Botswana, thus I had no need to see an orphanage in Congo.  He did not take it well: “But the orphans are expecting you.”  I’m not saying for sure the orphans in Congo were fake, 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 who have families to “play the part” of orphans.  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 which 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 selfless contribution to society.  I was recently on a plane and the young woman next to me made that exact comment.  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 building that school.  “$2,300.00”
A few months ago I received multiple emails from my mother and friends back in the U.S. asking me if I had hugged a lion recently and requesting I not do so.  Apparently there had been a news report about a wildlife sanctuary in Botswana which was accompanied by a photo of a worker at the location hugging a lion. My friends who were planning a trip to visit me asked if we could go to the sanctuary on the news and visit the lions.  I said I would look into it.  I asked around and did some research, only to find out that the only way to visit the wildlife sanctuary was to volunteer there.  You had to volunteer for a minimum of a two week period, for which you would PAY over $1,000 per week, and you would be completing manual labor such as building fences or cleaning enclosures (apparently this is more of a zoo than a park if the animals are in enclosures).  This is why I disagree with voluntourism.

The problem with voluntourism is that in most cases people are 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 skill set?  If you are a teacher then teach something.  If you are a doctor, volunteer at a clinic.  And volunteering is supposed to be free labor, not paying someone so you can do work.  But here’s the real problem: so-called volunteers/voluntourists are paying to do 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 that job.  Essentially these voluntourists are not helping the local community, they are hurting it by robbing locals of paid positions.
I grew up in a family where my parents were always participating in community service, and we kids were expected to do the same.  To this day I volunteer regularly and encourage my friends and students to do so as well.  But I would caution anyone considering a voluntourism-focused vacation to evaluate the wisdom of that decision.  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.


  1. Another American newspaper entry!

  2. Yes, you are on fire! Looks like a book deal to me.