Featured, Post-Study Abroad, Travel, Work Abroad

Diversity Twitter Chat: Voluntourism’s Rise Abroad

Volunteering abroad is a massive current trend, with thousands of websites dedicated to assisting people in finding the perfect placement. Shortened to “voluntourism”, you’ve probably heard about it in some form, even if you haven’t gone abroad–you’ve heard about a friend teaching English in an Asian country, seen websites dedicated to posting classifieds for people to go and work on short term projects, or heard of non-profit involvement such as Peace Corps or church mission trips.

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On Tuesday, the 26th of July, I got to be a part of an open Twitter chat that @DiversityAbroad hosted. It appealed to me because I know I need to expand my knowledge of diversity abroad and learn more about incorporating diversity into the international education workplace, and the fact that it was going to be partially about volunteering abroad interested me–it’s a topic that as a 20-something graduate is always appealing to me and my travel mindset.

What I didn’t expect was to get an overview and reality check of voluntourism abroad–the good AND bad parts of it.

Their subtitle was “Working Within The Culture” and how Westerners could potentially harm (even though many volunteers have an innocent, albeit ignorant, set of good intentions) different cultures through ignorance and indifference to the countries they’re supposed be serving. It was a breath of fresh air in my Western world where I hear 24/7 messages about “just do it! Go volunteer abroad in any way you can!” I’m one of the people who wishes she could spend all her time voluntouring abroad–but it hit home that a lot of the time I am motivated to do that primarily for ME and what I want, and often put host countries and real needs secondary to what I wish I was doing.

How does this tie into study abroad? Many programs, especially short-term summer ones, incorporate “service learning” opportunities into their curriculum, so that you do a mix of learning for-credit and helping out your host country while you’re visiting. Or maybe, you opted out of a formal study abroad trip but still decided to or will spend your summer in between college volunteering. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it? In a perfect world, it would be–and it looks that way from the outside. You travel like you’ve always wanted to, the place and people you visit are benefited by your skills or extra set of hands, and you return home giving yourself a pat on the back.

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It doesn’t always work that way. Despite our best intentions, let’s admit it, study abroad IS what we get out of it and what we get to accomplish. And sure, that’s not always a bad thing! After all, we get a college education to better ourselves, and we study abroad because we want to travel and better ourselves–with the hopes of building a better life and impacting others along the way. Study abroad is an industry centered around us, us, us and the life-changing experiences it can bring. Sure, maybe incorporating volunteering abroad is a good way to stave off some guilty feelings we may have (hopefully you’re not doing it for that reason), but are we really doing our voluntourism responsibly and with the best interests of our host country at heart?

@DiversityAbroad’s first questions were, “How do you define voluntourism?” and “How do volunteers avoid falling into tourism?”.

Despite voluntourism being a well-intentioned option, in the chat we recognized that there are some downsides to it as much as we’d like to wholeheartedly endorse it. Mainly, the downsides center around an ignorance of the destination country and its needs before you arrive–and thus, many volunteers hit the ground with a much different objective in mind as opposed to what the native residents could actually benefit from (which, in many cases, although a complicated issue, could include empowering native workers to work in their own countries with the money that we save on not spending it on an airfare). An example was volunteering in orphanages–an incredibly worthy cause, but one that has repercussions for children that watch a steady stream of new people come and go out of their lives.

Are we really doing our voluntourism responsibly and with the best interests of our host country at heart?

NPR had a great article, located here, titled “As Voluntourism Explodes in Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most?” which gently made the point that many volunteers are doing it to pad their resumes and fulfill their own lives, rather than a desire to genuinely help a community in a much needed way (easier said than done, right? But a lot of voluntourism revolves around what WE want to do and what we are comfortable with, versus the tasks that no one wants to do, understandably).

But some people who work in the industry are skeptical of voluntourism’s rising popularity. They question whether some trips help young adults pad their resumes or college applications more than they help those in need.

– Carrie Khan, NPR

Study abroad is great–but it is about you. So, it’s a wonderful thing that so many study abroad students genuinely want to help their host country and get involved. The question is, how can we improve that to (A) Connect our study abroad students to opportunities that genuinely involve them in causes that are beneficial first and foremost for the host culture and (B) Ensure that we are creating sustainable opportunities for voluntourism?
Got an answer/comment?! How do you define voluntourism and are you a fan of it–why/why not? Please let us know in the comments or email us if you want to share your thoughts/experiences in a post!

In our next post, we’ll talk about the good parts of voluntourism–after all, volunteering is great and something that should always be encouraged. We’ll give you some resources to get started in voluntourism while you study abroad–places to look, good reviews of places to volunteer for, and resources to get you started in discerning for yourself what the best options are.

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