Many people lucky enough to be upper middle class Americans experience a desire to give back, to volunteer, to do some real, empirical, tangible good. And thus, ‘voluntourism’ was born. Voluntourism companies allow people looking for a worthwhile vacation to travel to underprivileged countries like India, Peru, and Mexico, splitting their time between a volunteer project and tourist activities.

A group might spend four days repainting a school, and another four days exploring caves and bungee jumping, all at their own expense. And yet, as with most things that appear too good to be true, so might the case be with voluntourism.

Voluntourists are not NGOs, and their projects can be harmful to development rather than helpful. Volunteers are often unskilled, doing shoddy and inefficient work that may waste both money and the NGOs’ time. Because tour companies, as businesses, prioritize their customers, the volunteers, over the local people, projects and activities are designed to make the volunteers feel useful rather than an advocate for change.

For example, companies touring Cambodian orphanages have actually created an orphan demand. Families will now send their children to orphanages to be hugged by tourists for a fee. The practice of volunteers handing out food or school supplies to the families of their choosing is not only an extremely discomfiting practice, but it also creates dependency, jealousy, and can be harmful to the local economy. Some argue that voluntourism exists simply to stroke the ego of its customers.

There is, however, some intrinsic value in people from wealthy countries simply visiting a developing country and spending time with its people. Seeing and experiencing, to some degree, the living conditions of the desperately poor is the most powerful form of raising awareness.

People who have been in a position to better understand the situations of people in developing countries are perhaps more likely to become advocates at home. Raising awareness is always important and helpful. Though voluntourists may not be able to effect much change directly, the experiences they bring home can be important tools for advocacy and awareness.

– Kathleen Walsh

Sources: Huffington Post, CNN
Photo: Virgin Islands This Week