We’ve all seen it. Someone you’re friends with on Facebook or someone you follow on Instagram made a post about traveling to another country to do volunteer work. These trips usually include heartfelt pictures with local children and lengthy Instagram captions speaking to the life-changing impact of volunteering. This type of tourism has become popularly and academically called “voluntourism,” a term that refers to the trend of wealthy Westerners — voluntourists — traveling to “developing” countries to vacation while participating in some kind of community service work. This community service usually consists of unskilled labor, as most volunteers have no training, and only lasts for the duration of the vacation, usually one or two weeks.
Highlighting just how lucrative voluntourism has become, some tourists are willing to pay thousands for the opportunity to volunteer abroad. Unfortunately, because of its potential for profit, voluntourism rarely provides any meaningful changes for the local communities. As such, it is urgent that we become more critical of voluntourism as it works to enforce global inequities.
It is a fact that voluntourism would not exist and would not continue to exist without the global force of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, a political-economic dogma that endorses limited regulation and little state intervention, has a huge role in contemporary global inequalities. In this way, the inequalities that exist between countries and enable tourists to travel to impoverished countries as volunteers is heavily dependent on the continuation of neoliberalism. An article in the Journal of Sociology by Nichole Georgeou and Colleen McGloin describes this phenomenon by writing, “Indeed, while globalized neoliberal capitalism continues to produce growing inequality, there will be increased ‘opportunities’ for voluntourism.”
Not only is voluntourism heavily reliant on the maintenance of inequality, it is also highly profitable, which incentivizes the maintenance of these inequalities. Georgeou and McGloin explain, “The neoliberal process of privatization and contracting out commodifies the activity of ‘doing development.’ Voluntourism companies sell a ‘development’ experience to consumers by appealing to their desire to ‘make a difference.’” Samantha Nutt, in a documentary by NowThis News on volunteer tourism, revealed some tourists pay upwards of $10,000 to volunteer. Tourists will pay Western companies for these volunteering opportunities, which means that local people rarely see any of the profits made off of their inequality. In this way, voluntourism follows the profit. Voluntourism experiences are not designed to make meaningful changes — they are designed to make Western tourists feel good and boost their résumés. As such, voluntourism does very little to help local people and most often actually inflicts great harm.
In a myriad of ways, voluntourism maintains global inequalities in ways that only harm local people. One of the most distressing examples of the harm caused by voluntourism is in the case of orphanages. As Jacob Kushner of The New York Times describes, orphanages are often kept purposefully squalid to guilt tourists into donating more money. Kushner writes that research “ … has found that ‘orphan tourism’ — in which visitors volunteer as caregivers for children whose parents died or otherwise can’t support them — has become so popular that some orphanages operate more like opportunistic businesses than charities, intentionally subjecting children to poor conditions in order to entice unsuspecting volunteers to donate more money.” Furthermore, there is immeasurable emotional damage caused to the children living in these orphanages, as they continue forming bonds with tourists who abandon them.
While voluntourists travel to developing countries with the hopes of having an authentic “helping” experience, these trips are specifically designed to please the tourists with little to no regard for the local people who are supposed to be receiving help in this transaction. In most cases, the work of voluntourists is either completely ineffective or extremely damaging. To actually help create stability and success for those in developing countries, it would be much more worthwhile to spend the money and energy toward dismantling neoliberalism and its enmeshed inequalities. Beyond this, we need to hold our friends and family members accountable for the ways they may be shaping these very global inequalities. Next time you’re browsing social media, think about the human impact of that voluntourist photo before you hit the like button.
Kate Turrell is a senior double-majoring in sociology and women, gender and sexuality studies.