Writer Jacob Kushner presents a dilemma regarding “voluntourism.” We talked about it.


The Dilemma with The Voluntourist’s Dilemma

In his article for The New York Times Magazine, Jacob Kushner wonders if our good intentions are woefully misplaced when it comes to volunteering abroad. Here are a few quotes that stood out to us:

Several years ago, when I was working as a reporter based in Haiti, I came upon a group of older Christian missionaries in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, struggling with heavy shovels to stir a pile of cement and sand. They were there to build a school alongside a Methodist church. They were “voluntourists”. They would come for a week or two for a “project” — a temporary medical clinic, an orphanage visit or a school construction …

 And yet, watching those missionaries make concrete blocks that day in Port-au-Prince, I couldn’t help wondering if their good intentions were misplaced. These people knew nothing about how to construct a building …

… Perhaps we are fooling ourselves. Unsatisfying as it may be, we ought to acknowledge the truth that we, as amateurs, often don’t have much to offer. Perhaps we ought to abandon the assumption that we, simply by being privileged enough to travel the world, are somehow qualified to help ease the world’s ills …

… I’ve come to believe that the first step toward making the world a better place is to simply experience that place. Unless you’re willing to devote your career to studying international affairs and public policy, researching the mistakes that foreign charities have made while acting upon good intentions, and identifying approaches to development that have data and hard evidence behind them — perhaps volunteering abroad is not for you.

As we often do, one of us sent the article to the rest of the team and we discussed our thoughts and impressions.

Corey Diamond, COO: This is a really interesting piece. What does everyone think?

Ben Bisbee, Senior Strategy Advisor: This speaks to what RW has been saying for years: volunteerism is often more for the individual than it is for the benefactor. Often there are “better” people for the job, but that’s not always the point of volunteerism, or even the point of the task. It’s about leveraging free labor while introducing experiences and the mission of the organization.

Christine Johnston, Director of Project Management and Global Initiatives: I think the distinction for me (whether I’m for or against it) has to do with the NGO and activity in question. I once personally had an especially terrible experience in a developing country with “voluntourism” that made me never ever want to engage in that way again. We were taking jobs away from locals and effectively ensuring that the children there stayed illiterate. It was awful. I realized I wasn’t helping at all – I was part of the problem.

Sabrina Viva, Director of Account Management & Latin America Initiatives: I had a similar experience to Christine’s when I was in Costa Rica for a “voluntourism” trip. Being an avid local volunteer all my life and then experiencing a volunteer activity that was heavily transactional left me disappointed and failing to see how I was “changing the world.” But then I had an epiphany when I met those 33 children at the orphanage. Although I couldn’t change their circumstances, I could contribute in my personal way. The relationship with those children continues to this day, over 10 years later. Although my experience started off transactional, many years later, I am confident saying it was truly transformative.

CD: In January, when we were volunteering together in the Dominican Republic, the leader of local NGO said something that will always stick with me: he called us “useless”. We were there to paint some homes and clean up a neighbourhood that has experienced decades of neglect. The NGO leader explained that the paint we bought could’ve easily been used by the local families. They didn’t need our physical help at all. Despite this, our role in “helping” was so utterly important to changing these people’s lives because of the seed that was going to be planted in all of us. The experience itself was the product, not the painting. I think it’s far too didactic to suggest international volunteerism is “bad”; instead we need to be exploring how to frame the experience for everyone so that the seed is planted and we change as individuals because of it.

BB: I’ve said this for years, but NGOs need to do better at constructing a universe within their opportunities that speak to real skills (or lack thereof) and then figure out the by-products associated with volunteer opportunities. In the case this article presents, do the volunteers need to understand construction? I’m unsure. But if they do, it should be taught or demanded. And if not, then what is the value to the volunteer for doing this without education or insight to formal construction? Those elements need to be more thoughtfully developed, frankly.

CJ: The international development professional inside of me was sometimes screaming during parts of this article. When it referenced long term plans beyond volunteerism or supporting a project with money over time, whatever it is, it needs to contribute and be sustainable rather than a detraction from progress. This is why I think organizations and programs such as WUSC, CECI, and Moving Worlds do such a good job. They are so focused on the continuum of social impact surrounding one volunteer’s experience, so that volunteers can go for a short amount of time and know in good conscience that they are contributing to sustainable development. This allows them to have their mind freed up to have that transformative experience we are all trying to give them.

SV: In the fast-paced, multifaceted world that we live in today, I think there is a place for everyone. To tell individuals they cannot and should not volunteer because their volunteer activity is not sustainable and has no effect on the benefactor would limit almost every Stage 1 person. There is a space and a need for this type of volunteering. However, I do agree that organizations (like the ones mentioned by Christine) and those highly enthusiastic Stage 3 volunteers need to continue their important work on the ground. These efforts should create jobs for locals and focus on sustainable solutions. In partnership with voluntourism, it will perhaps move towards more skills-based opportunities, and will be crucial to the future success of these communities.

BB: I agree. I also really dislike this behind-the-two-way-mirror assessment of volunteerism. that one single act “won’t save the village”. Why demand so much from so little? Again, I would argue that it’s not the point. It’s like saying a soup kitchen is essentially worthless unless they serve three full meals a day every day to everyone who is hungry. You can’t apply one distinct outcome from one distinct contribution. It really does takes a village, even if parts of that village are just tourists.

CD: True. When a volunteer is told they are not making a difference, the opportunity for that volunteer’s transformation won’t happen. I would also say that when a volunteer sees that their contribution is actually inhibiting the intended social impact, the opportunity for that volunteer’s transformation will not happen and may even lead to that individual being disengaged with volunteerism altogether. That’s not what any of us in this space want!

So does voluntourism present an unsolvable dilemma, or does it have its merits? Tweet us @realizedworth and let us know what you think.

Realized Worth designs and implements corporate volunteer programs for companies around the world. Want to discuss your program with us? We’ll be happy to hear from you! Find us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.