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Is 'voluntourism' a good idea?


When I was in high school, the big thing among my perpetually resume-padding pals was something that's now been coined "voluntourism."

Voluntourism, as the name suggests, is the marriage of volunteering and tourism. For my peers it was a way to both "see" Cabo (you know, in the way teenagers frequently do want to see coastal resort Mexico) and put something down on their resume -- usually to the tune of "helping underprivileged youth" or some sort of house-building endeavor.

For other people, it's not all that frivolous -- it's a useful tool for busy people looking to knock out two birds with one stone. They're given both the opportunity to travel and the chance to make a difference in a place that probably is in desperate need of that sort of attention.

When well-organized, these spurts of volunteer help can be extremely productive to under-privileged regions. For example, after a natural disaster, a flux of people willing to help clean up can give the rebuilding process -- a process that can take years, if not decades -- the momentum it needs.

More than that, a positive volunteer experience abroad might open the door for more sustained service. A person who volunteers in Thailand for a week or two over his or her winter break may feel like he or she has made a real difference. Then, he or she might decide to go on a several month or even a year-long trip.

And again, looking past just the volunteer aspect, this can, of course, foster cultural exchange and a greater understanding of the world beyond one's own. Without a doubt, there are some real opportunities for sustainable, positive impact -- but voluntourism can also go awry.

When I hear about these kinds of trips, a few questions spring to mind:

  • Are the needs that these volunteer trips tend to, real? And if they are, can they really be tended to in a week or two (or even a month)?
  • When children are involved -- is it counter-productive to constantly expose them to new people, many of whom probably lack the proper training to engage them?
  • How thorough are the application processes for these trips? How do you gauge commitment? Are they done through travel agencies or NGOs or something in between the two? How do we know which organizations are looking to really help and which ones are looking to exploit people's desire to both have a good time and do something good with their spare time?
  • How are the volunteers prepared? What about risk management?
  • These trips are often quite pricey. Should people be paying an upwards of $3,000 to volunteer? Do these costs exclude people who are looking to help but cannot afford the cost?

And the most obvious question:

  • For the people who do go on these trips -- harkening back to the example I gave with my high school compadres -- how many of them really want to volunteer? How many people want to party and need the veneer of "doing the right thing" to accomplish this goal?


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