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15 reasons volunteering might not benefit you as much as you think: Negative impacts of volunteer tourism

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In this post, I will reflect on the reasons why volunteering might not benefit you as much as you think, focusing on the negative impacts of volunteer tourism.

Volunteer tourism can be viewed as a form of tourism incorporating volunteer services. This form of tourism combines tourists who are in search of an experience that contributes to their personal development, but also having a positive impact on the social, natural and economic environments in which they are hosted. Volunteer tourism meets the needs of those who prefer to travel with a purpose and is often associated heavily with niche tourism for those who seek a different experience. Visit this post for a more detailed explanation and definition of volunteer tourism.

As the volunteer tourism industry grows, we are witnessing growing changes in volunteer motivations. In the past, reasons may have been predominantly altruism-based; however, we are now seeing strong notions of egotism amongst volunteer tourists. This has changed the face of the industry and brings with it a range of associated impacts for both the host and volunteers. Thus, it is important to consider the positive and negative impacts of volunteer tourism on the volunteer, as much as it is on the host.

Although motivations can differ, there remains several reasons why volunteering might not benefit you as much as you think. To understand the reasons why people volunteer, see my recent post on volunteer motivations.

Although in my previous post, I reflect on the 20 reasons why you should volunteer, recent years have seen a darker view on volunteer tourism emerge in discussion and now there is a growing body of literature that highlights the negative impacts of volunteer tourism.

Below I will explain the top 15 documented reasons why volunteering might not benefit you as much as you think, as highlighted through a range of academic studies.

negative impacts of volunteer tourism

#1 Limited benefits due to the short longevity of volunteer placement

Volunteer tourism projects are predominantly short-term placements, typically lasting around 2 weeks. During such a short time frame, there is very little to get done apart from helping the community and volunteering. There may be little personal benefits to volunteering for such a short period of time and thus this is often deemed one of the negative impacts of volunteer tourism to the tourist.

#2 Culture shock

The second noteworthy negative impact of volunteer tourism is culture shock.

Tourists often commit to volunteer programmes with little understanding and knowledge of the community’s culture, history and way of life. This can lead to a culture shock when volunteers are required to immerse themselves fully during the length of the volunteer programme.

#3 Not being able to see where their money has been spent

Volunteer programmes typically cost the volunteer around £2,000, according to the research organisation Tourism Research and Marketing (TRAM).

During the programme you will be helping onside and participating in a very hands on experience, however, you will often not be able to see where your £2,000 worth of project fees are being spent. This is discussed further in my post on the commodification of tourism.

#4 Experience given not matching expectations

A small number of studies have identified the dissatisfaction expressed by volunteers when their placement expectations have not been met.

Coren and Gray’s work discovered this feeling of dissatisfaction when they were aware that the money they paid for their placements had not reached the communities in which they were led to believe it would.

I have also personal experience of this. At age 22 I travelled to the vishas of Buenos Aires to volunteer my time to help the local communities. I envisaged working most days and doing things such as teaching, running activities with the children and supporting members of the community. In reality, volunteers were on site only a few hours each week and spent much of their time chatting with each other about the Argentinian nightlife scene and their previous nights antics. You can read more about this in my post ‘Volunteer work: Who gets the cookies’.

#5 Marketing material not reflective of actual experience

Volunteer projects are heavily marketed to ensure they encourage a good amount of volunteers, however in some cases the marketing material of programmes is not a true reflection of the actual experience.

In fact, many volunteer tourism organisations invoke images and rhetoric of tourism far more than they do of volunteering! This gives the perception that aspects such as relaxing on the beach or visiting the local tourist attractions may be a more significant promotion of the volunteer tourism experience than they actually are.

#6 Volunteers unaware of what ‘difference’ they have made

Another one of the key negative impacts of volunteer tourism is that volunteers may be unaware of the ‘difference that they have made’.

Because volunteer programmes are predominantly short and last around two weeks or less volunteer tourists may not be able to see any tangible results from their efforts.

This is most likely the result of programmes benefiting long-term as opposed to foreseeing immediate benefits. And similar to #3 when you are not able to see where your money has been spent you are unaware of what difference you have made.

#7 A feeling of awkwardness when locals are viewed as inferior to volunteers by the host population

During volunteer programmes cultures are emerged with one another in a way that would not otherwise emerge without the act of volunteering programmes.

Volunteer tourists are predominantly from developed countries and therefore have very different lifestyles to those of the host community. This can lead to unequal power relations in which leaves volunteers feeling uncomfortable. It can also cause resentment or dissatisfaction from the local population.

Christian, a member of an international volunteering organisation in Ghana, describes volunteer tourists as “entitled young rich people who are convinced they can save Africa”. And Christian’s observation of volunteer tourists dispel attitudes of being the only source of help, which can (without intent) lead locals to feel inferior to volunteers.

#8 Role ambiguity

Another one of the negative impacts of volunteer tourism is the notion of role ambiguity. This because what exactly it is you will be doing during the programme can appear fairly vague to the volunteer tourist.

For example, lets take a look at a volunteer programme description from Projects Abroad

“As a volunteer, you’ll become part of our ongoing efforts to support children in Cambodia. You’ll do this by planning and running fun, educational activities to promote early childhood development. For example, you can play a ball game to help kids improve their hand-eye coordination.”

It can appear that volunteer programmes can be unclear of what it is exactly they require you to do and when you arrive your expectations may not be met.

#9 Cross-cultural misunderstanding

As I said before, volunteer tourism programmes require different cultures to emerge with one another that would have not connected otherwise.

Volunteers often travel to volunteer programmes with little knowledge and understanding of the hosts culture and vise versa. This can result in cross-cultural misunderstanding and therefore make the experience somewhat awkward and challenging for the volunteer.

Cross-cultural misunderstanding can also cause issues with regards to the local community. Tourists may unintentionally cause offence or be rude, due to a lack of understanding of the local culture. This is commonly seen, for example, in the Middle East when tourists wear revealing clothing or in many Asian destinations when tourists do not remove their shoes indoors.

#10 The need for volunteers is simulated

In severe cases the need for volunteers may be simulated.

Tourism Concern reflects on the heightened media surrounding volunteering in orphanages, in which it has been identified that many children have been purposely pulled from their families and ‘orphaned’ in order to serve the volunteer tourism programmes surrounding orphanages and to make a vast profit.

#11 Unauthentic experience

Volunteers benefit through the feeling that they have made a difference, but it can appear some programmes in some shape of form are staged and in fact inauthentic. As mentioned above, the need for volunteers is simulated and thus creates unauthentic experiences for the volunteers.

#12 Feeling unneeded or ‘unused’

There may be too many volunteers in one voluntary programme and therefore you may feel as if you are ‘getting in the way’ or not helping as much as you had hoped to be because there are enough people on the programme. Or that perhaps your skills are not being utilised to their full potential.

#13 Language barriers

Again, similar to miss cultural understandings, there is a lack in the tendency of communication barriers due to lack of language knowledge between both the host community and the volunteers. This creates language barriers and thus makes it difficult to communicate between the volunteer and hosts and can result in cross-cultural understandings and feelings of awkwardness.

#14 Physical hardship (insects, lack of sleep, physical exertion etc)

Yes, volunteering can be a very emotional challenge for some, having to witness the hardship others in the world suffer daily, but also for the volunteers, there is the encounter of physical hardship.

You must prepare yourself mentally for the diverse living situation, the higher chances of falling ill, lack of sleep and overall physical exertion if you are helping day in and day out.

#15 Lack of amenities/activities

Of course, those that require help will typically have less, and this also means a lack of amenities and activities for the volunteers. Most commonly, there are less resources, health facilities, food service and more as well as excursions and other activities that you may decide to do during your time away from the volunteer project.

Conclusion: The negative impacts of volunteer tourism

As the volunteer tourism industry grows, it is clear we are witnessing a darker view on the industry that is reflected widely through academic discussion. It is important to highlight the negative impacts of volunteer tourism to the volunteer as much as it is to the host.  

And although there are countless benefits of volunteering, we cannot ignore the negative impacts that also arise. However, by understanding the negative impacts of volunteer tourism, we are able to be more mindful and critical when choosing the right volunteer programme.

I’d be interested to hear your experiences of volunteer tourism and the negative impacts in which you have encountered during your programme, please comment below!

Additional reading on volunteer tourism

There are some excellent resources on this topic. Here are a few of my recommendations.

Studying or working in volunteer tourism? I recommend that you consult the following texts:

Looking for an easy read? Here are some books that you might enjoy over a cup of tea:

Want more like this? Here are some of my other posts that may interest you:

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