Oct 3rd, 2016, 04:04 PM

Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

By Robin Allison Davis
Image Credit: Shutterstock
Who is the "savior complex" really saving?

If your dream vacation involves building a school, teaching English or bonding with children in orphanages, you’re in luck! Voluntourism is a booming trend that shows no signs of slowing down.

Voluntourism is the act of doing charity work as a tourist abroad. You can build a school in Haiti, hug an orphan in Bali or teach English in Mexico, as offered by many tour companies and international organizations. As the popularity of voluntourism grows, so does the criticism. How much good is voluntourism really doing and how can you make sure you’re actually helping the community and not hurting it?

Image Credit: Condé Nast

The Internet and social media have made our world feel a lot smaller than it did in years past. Instead of watching a “Save the Children” ad on late night TV and feeling sad for a few minutes, it’s fairly easy to hop a flight to volunteer with any cause that pulls at your heartstrings.  Sad about orphaned children? There’s a voluntourism trip for that! Sad about lack of proper school structures?  There’s a trip for that as well!

Statistics are hard to find about the size of the voluntourism industry. According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation report in 2015, an estimated 10 million people a year spend a total of $2 billion on voluntourism trips.

The lucrative nature of the industry has brought on a lot of criticism. Many “for profit” organizations have popped up, that have no investment in the communities they claim to support. Some deceptive orphanages are filled with children from families not in need – they simply report to the orphanage to get money from the voluntourists just to give it to their parents at the end of the day.

Not only are there issues with voluntourism from the side of the organizations, but also with the tourist themselves. While their heart may be in the right place, many people are volunteering with skills they do not possess. Pippa Biddle wrote of her experience building a school in Haiti for the Huff Po: “Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.”

This is not unique to her experience. Websites like Volunteer Forever and Abroad Details provide a space for people to leave reviews of their voluntourism experiences.  Everything from project's mission miscommunications to hidden fees sprung on the volunteers are mentioned in the reviews.

The criticism has even spread to social media. In March 2016, two women started an Instagram account titled “Barbie Savior.” The account parodies voluntourists and their “savior” complex, particularly in the continent of Africa.

Image Credit: @barbiesavior

An important point if you’re thinking about engaging in voluntourism is why you’re doing it. Are you doing it for the ‘gram like White Savior Barbie? Are you doing it to improve your CV? Or do you actually care about the cause? JK Rowling is the latest high profile critic of voluntourism, stating her disgust recently on her Twitter.

If you’re still anxious to get out there and save the world with a voluntourism trip, here’s a few things to consider to get it right.

1. Ask yourself why you’re doing it. Is this just a CV builder? Is it just for social media likes? Are you trying to shed guilt from your position of privilege?

2. Share your actual skillset. If you wouldn’t go into your parents’ neighborhood and build a playground, why do you think another country wants your shoddy handiwork? There are plenty of transferrable skills you can share with people of other cultures.

3. Research the organization you’re helping. Read reviews of the trips, read reviews of the organization on sites like Charity Navigator. Due diligence can go a long way.

4. Don’t do drive-by volunteering. Would a 2-hour trip to an orphanage really make a difference in the long run? Make sure your trip allows an adequate amount of time to get to know and help the community.

5. Leave your privileged attitude & savior complex at home (if applicable). If you wouldn’t like a stranger grabbing you for pictures and putting a condescending caption on Instagram – perhaps you shouldn’t do it either.

If you’re interested in reputable organizations to volunteer with, check out this Conde Nast Traveler list.