How to change the world (without making it worse): Four tips for ethical voluntourism

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Illustration by Yimeng Bian, Graphics Contributor

Illustration by Yimeng Bian, Graphics Contributor

At first glance, simultaneously travelling and volunteering seems like a no-brainer. After all, it promises personal growth, unforgettable adventure, and the chance to snap some killer profile pictures — all while making the planet a better place. Who wouldn’t want to do a little voluntourism this summer?

But before you strap on your backpack and go change the world, you should double check what kind of difference you’re about to make overseas. Your time, money, and the planet’s well-being may depend on it. The good news is that ethical voluntourism is doable, and it starts with you. Here are four tips to get you going:

1. Check your motives

Studies indicate that Westerners’ motives for volunteering abroad are often a cocktail of altruistic and egotistical ambitions. In many cases, voluntourists seem more concerned about individualistic benefits like achieving personal fulfillment than helping others. Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically unethical about seeking fulfilling experiences, enhanced cross-cultural awareness, and broadened horizons. Nevertheless, research has found that voluntourists’ hosts often perceive them as being primarily vacation-minded rather than service-focused.  It might be worthwhile to clarify your purposes by listing all your reasons for doing voluntourism, and then deciding which ones to prioritize. While trying to completely squelch self-directed motives might be futile, recognizing them is a good start.

2. Beware of your negative potential

Westernization. Neo-colonial paternalism. Fostering dependence on outsiders rather than empowering sustainable communities. Like repeatedly rescuing people from an open manhole rather than finding ways to cover it, voluntourism may pose sustainability concerns by offering temporary solutions to long-term problems, often led by unskilled outsiders. One study, for instance, documented a common enough case where skilled local builders constructed comfortable housing for non-skilled voluntourists who were there to build a hospital. While many of these voluntourists saw no harm in their presence, more experienced voluntourists expressed concern over the amount of foreign and local resources being poured into creating a “cottage industry” for outsiders rather than promoting long-term local development. Another study described a similar effect at a Malawi orphanage, where volunteer housing had electricity, plumbing, and internet, while the orphanage itself did not.

But unethical voluntourism may be more subtle than that, too. Take cuddling babies for instance. What could be more ethical than that? But because infants need parenting from local primary caregivers rather than from come-and-go volunteers, orphanage voluntourism may harm children’s abilities to form secure attachments. At its worse, orphanage voluntourism fuels commoditization of children, including a trafficking industry in which children — many of whom are not true orphans—are institutionalized to attract wealthy tourists. For these reasons, UNICEF urged non-professionals to reconsider volunteering with children affected by the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, and the ChildSafe Movement recommends that volunteers use their skills to support and equip local orphanage staff, rather than directly working with youngsters.

3. Do your homework

Understanding your potential negative impacts will allow you to take steps towards minimizing them. But how can you understand your effect on a culture that you know nothing about? Conversely, how can you learn the best way to help in a situation to which you are a foreigner? Research has documented local hosts’ frustrations at well-intentioned voluntourists who swoop upon impoverished areas out of emotional compulsion, seeking to make an impact without taking the time to learn about the complexities of poverty and of local circumstances. So that you don’t compound these issues, finding informed ways to minimize harm and maximize helpfulness overseas will be well-worth the research effort.

4. Place altruism above individualism

At this point, one thing becomes clear: changing the world starts with changing your focus, from self to others. This might mean abstaining from some show-stopping photo-ops, or saying no to doing tasks that you’re not qualified to do, or that locals should be doing instead. Yes, this could threaten to put a dent in your fun and self-perceived awesomeness, or at least your social media-perceived awesomeness. But at the end of the summer, you’ll come home far more content knowing that any differences you made were indeed for the better, even if it is at the expense of a few extra snapshots.

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