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Voluntourism, or volunteer tourism, is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as a vacation during which one volunteers in the destination community. A 2014 NPR article called it one of the fastest-growing travel trends, stating there were more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists. But, voluntourism faces significant skepticism. For example, in a 2008 Huffington Post column, Northwestern University professor Noelle Sullivan wrote that in many ways, voluntourism “does more harm than good.” She believes that it reinforces paternalism—the idea that host communities are simply passive recipients. However, The Borgen Project spoke to several leaders of voluntourism-related organizations who believe there are ways to do voluntourism right and ensure a truly positive impact.
The Community at the Core
Organization leaders said first and foremost, voluntourism programs must work closely with locals to develop projects a community actually needs. That’s why, for example, New York-based nonprofit Bridges to Community spends at least a year collaborating with a community to identify and develop a project before launching it, according to Bridges’ Nicaragua country director Kenia Ramirez. Bridges to Community operates development projects and service-learning programs in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
Thomas Morgan is the executive director of the international service-learning program IPSL Global Institute based out of the National University of Natural Medicine in Oregon. He told The Borgen Project that it’s also crucial organizations stay involved in a community for a long period of time. Morgan said it helps projects form organically from locals with whom an organization builds connections. To that effect, Bridges spends a minimum of five years in any community it enters.
Likewise, California-based solar energy nonprofit GRID Alternatives has operated in Nicaragua for more than a decade with more recent work in programs in Mexico and Nepal. GRID conducts routine check-ups on solar energy systems it installs to ensure sustained functionality and avoid “solar graveyards”—energy systems that are abandoned because no sustainable technology or operational infrastructure was created. Jaime Croteau, development and program manager of GRID’s international program, told The Borgen Project that GRID’s model is based on that kind of “long-term commitment.”
Organization leaders noted it’s also important to have locals on staff and to get communities and local governments intimately involved long-term. This can be done through financing and managing the future operation of facilities or systems. Leaders said this both is logistically necessary and creates a sense of ownership, subverting the trope of communities as passive beneficiaries readily accepting or expecting handouts.
For example, GRID project communities must pay energy systems maintenance costs like battery replacements. For Bridges projects, local entities, communities and/or national government agencies help fund and then run and maintain Bridges projects like schools or wells. Even home-build beneficiaries pay a portion. The money Bridges beneficiaries pay goes not directly to their specific project but into a community fund to help with future community projects.
In addition to deep community connections, appropriate voluntourism requires proper volunteer management. To that effect, to foster volunteers’ understanding of their role in a project and expand their perspective, organizations have preliminary conversations about how to be an effective community partner, avoid “white savior” tropes and appropriately share experiences on social media. This education is bolstered by reflection sessions during and after programs.
And just as long-term involvement matters for organizations and projects, so it does for volunteers, Christina Kuntz told The Borgen Project. Kuntz is a co-founder of the Colombia-based organization Domino Volunteers. Domino matches individuals and groups from abroad to social enterprises in Cartagena, Colombia based on community needs and volunteers’ abilities. In commitment to a philosophy that the longer a person’s involvement, the greater the impact, Kuntz said Domino Volunteers prefers volunteers to work on a project for a minimum of one month, especially for skills-based projects.
Jenny Teasdale, operations director of sustainability and recycling NGO Green Apple in Colombia, told The Borgen Project that even a month might not be ideal for some projects. Teasdale pointed to orphanage or teaching programs as an example because there’s a risk of hurting children’s development if volunteers leave just as children get attached. Indeed, the New York Times and the advocacy organization World Vision wrote about the problems of childcare-related volunteerism. However, Teasdale noted that short-term volunteering does have a place if done carefully, and in fact, Kuntz said that Domino often has volunteer opportunities available for short-term visitors.
Benefits of Voluntourism
When voluntourism is done right, it offers many benefits. Georgetown University professor Anthony Clark Arend told The Borgen Project that there are certain skills one learns from volunteering abroad. He said being in a place where one doesn’t know the language, people look different and there are different customs that offer important insight. According to Arend, going abroad often provides a different level of that meaningful cultural difference than could be found domestically.
Additional indirect benefits of voluntourism include both other lessons volunteers learn from and about locals and, conversely, what locals learn from and about visitors. For example, Ramirez noted exposure to different people motivates locals, particularly youth, to learn English and attend school because it shows them there are more possibilities for life than they imagined.
Francisco Flores Guzmán, a 60-year-old Nicaraguan who received assistance from Bridges to Community, told The Borgen Project via an interpreter that seeing U.S. volunteers work together and with locals inspired his community to overcome sociopolitical relationship strains and become more unified. Such a benefit is why Guzmán feels voluntourism is a better form of foreign assistance than someone simply writing a check. “Community members enjoy the cultural exchange—they enjoy learning from…and teaching volunteers,” said Jenny Teasdale.
Successes of Voluntourism
That cultural exchange reaps not only indirect benefits but also direct benefits. Volunteers from abroad helped fund and build a house for Guzmán and his family. His community peer, Gioconda González, a 42-year-old Nicaraguan woman who also spoke to Borgen through an interpreter, said Bridges fixed the roof of her house and gave her a scholarship to study law at a university in Nicaragua. González said volunteers come to Nicaragua with respect and meaningful intent. “They do it with love,” she said. “There’s no skeptical way to look at it.”
Overall, Bridges to Community reported that in the last year, it has built and/or repaired 71 houses and built 70 latrines and bio-digesters. In that time frame, it had 724 volunteers work on projects across Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, impacting a total of 3,630 Nicaraguan and Dominican lives.
For its part, GRID Alternatives’ reported that it helped install 93.7 kilowatts of solar energy and bring electricity to 175 off-grid homes across Nicaragua, Nepal and Mexico in 2019. Meanwhile, in its three years of existence, Green Apple noted it has diverted more than 90 tons of glass and food waste from landfills and created the first glass recycling operation on Colombia’s coast. “As long as it’s managed in the right way, [voluntourism]can be super interesting and very positive on both sides,” said Teasdale.
As these sample voluntourism organizations suggest, proper management of voluntourism requires organizations to help volunteers both take away and contribute as many positive things as possible from an experience. They must thoroughly collaborate with the communities the organization wants to help and invest in those communities and projects long-term. Voluntourism isn’t hand-outs—it’s hands-in.