Does “Voluntourism” Do Any Good?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I like the idea: combining your love of travel — something most of us do for our own pleasure — with your desire to help out the world — something that benefits others. Thus has sprung the idea of “Voluntourism” (I was hoping the term “toureering” would catch on, but no luck), where you can spend your Aruba vacation picking up litter on beaches, or volunteering at an orphanage while you backpack through Cambodia. Recent numbers show that around 11% of travelers planned to volunteer during their next trip.

But with fame comes attention, and with attention comes criticism. What is volunteerism anyway? How much good does it really do? Would you be better off just making a donation? This week Slate ponders these questions and more:

Critics point out that voluntourists often come for short stints, like you are planning to, and leave without accomplishing much. It’s also sometimes unclear whether the voluntourism projects that agencies choose are actually rooted in community needs or whether they just make for the best spring break trip. Mostly, critics are skeptical of the voluntourism model itself. There is no question that unless you have very specific skills to offer, an organization could do more good with the amount of money you will spend on travel, accommodations, and tourism than you could do during your weeklong visit.

They suggest taking a step back and asking yourself, am I doing this just to say I’m doing this, or do I have something to offer and I think I can make a change? “[T]hink long and hard about why you are choosing this trip instead of a week in Disney World and about both what you hope to get out of the trip and what you hope to offer. With research, you are more apt to find a project that benefits you and those you are trying to help.”

Click through for some suggestions on reputable voluntourism guides, including Lonely Planet’s Volunteer Guide and Volunteer Vacations.

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