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26 Scary Problems With Volunteer Tourism

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There are many problems with volunteer tourism. People tend to think it is a kind thing to do which benefits everyone, but unfortunately this is not usually the case. If you are considering a volunteering holiday, it is important that you understand the problems with volunteer tourism and how to avoid or mitigate them. Ready to learn more about the problems with volunteer tourism? Read on…


The problems with volunteer tourism

Many years ago, the only volunteering and travelling opportunities were for the skilled medical professionals who would work their trade to support those less fortunate in dying need of medical care. But in contemporary society, volunteering and travelling has emerged into discussion as ‘volunteer tourism’. And this is when the problems with volunteer tourism began to emerge…

The volunteer tourism opportunities represented today are designed to suit the needs of the typical ‘gap year tourist’ who believe ‘it will look great on my CV’. Helping those in need whilst enhancing your CV sounds harmless right? Surely teaching English to local children is a good thing and a great skill to have?

Despite these good intentions, volunteer tourism has attracted immense criticism over the past few years and rather than benefiting local communities and environments, the industry is witnessing a wide range of negative impacts that are underpinned by a number of key studies.

We need more honest conversations about the problems with volunteer tourism programmes, and in this article I will explain 26 such problems an d why they exist.

#1 Neglect on locals’ desires and lack of community support

Lets start by looking at the first of the major problems with volunteer tourism- neglect.

Often it is assumed volunteer programmes will favour local communities and their desired support. However, this may not be the case. Matthews’ study of turtle conservation in Costa Rica identifies the influence that volunteer tourism projects had on poaching and stallholders selling turtle products.

In his research he found that, while poaching is not commendable, the turtle industry was an important part of the community. When volunteer tourism was introduced, many were put out of work and the community became resentful of the volunteer tourists.

This example illustrates that while volunteer tourism projects should consider the benefits to the volunteer, it is important that the projects are also designed in line with the host and community’s wishes.

benefits of volunteer tourism. problems with volunteer tourism

#2 Hindering of work progress and completion of unsatisfactory work

Next up on this list of problems with volunteer tourism is work progress.

In my previous posts, I mention the short longevity of volunteer programs. Programs can run as little as one to two weeks per program. This is not a lot of time to make real progress or to see tangible results.

In fact, often work is hindered by the tourists. This may be because of time constraints or because the volunteer tourists lack the necessary skills, as discussed later in this post.

#3 Disruption of local economies

A key negative impact of volunteer tourism is the disruption of local economies.

Volunteer tourism projects are typically funded through volunteers paying on average £2,000 for their experience (TRAM, 2008).

Volunteers will often offer their services voluntarily, when oftentimes these positions could be filled by members of the local community This causes financial disruption within local economies and can cause resentment towards the tourists.

Although volunteers offer their services, do they know exactly where each program fee goes? Probably not.

Another point to note is that volunteers often tend to bring ‘gifts’ for locals like shoes and water, but this act of generosity can divert business from local markets.

#4 Reinforcement of conceptualisations of the ‘other’

In his article, ‘The Possible Negative Impacts of Volunteer Tourism’, Daniel Guttentag reflects on the work of Simpson, who points out that whilst interviewing gap-year volunteers, many of them emphasised the difference between ‘them’ (the locals) and ‘us’ (the volunteers); consequently establishing a dichotomy between the both of them.

Volunteer tourism programmes can take away the sense of responsibility and ownership for local people. Locals can be made to feel inferior and treated as so by the volunteers (although this is often unintentional). Concepts of racism, imperialism and globalisation also emphasise the ‘them and us’ notion that invokes conceptualisations of ‘the other’.

#5 Rationalisations of poverty

The next of the problems with volunteer tourism relates to poverty.

Following on from #4,Daniel Guttentag expresses that all authors who have voiced concerns in regards to locals being ‘poor but happy’ indicates a rationalisation of poverty.

Often those with less than others are described closely with expressions like ‘They don’t have TVs but it doesn’t bother them because they have never had one and don’t know what they’re missing out on’ or ‘they’re happy with how they live because they’re used to that style of living and don’t know of anything else’. These expressions used to describe communities from undeveloped countries allows material inequality to be justified and excused.

Volunteer tourism, does, however, help tourists to learn more about how others live and the poverty that they might be exposed to.

#6 Instigation of cultural changes

Another one of the major problems with volunteer tourism is that volunteer tourism can instigate negative cultural changes amongst host communities.

It is common for Western volunteers to inadvertently tarnish cultural traditions and invoke notions of globalisation and Western imperialism. This can lead to changes in the way that the local people live. Aspects such as their behaviour, the clothes that they wear and the way that they speak can change as a direct result of the presence of volunteer tourism.

For more on this topic, I recommend that you consult Mary Mostafanezhad’s recent text, Volunteer Tourism (New Directions in Tourism Analysis).

Reasons why people volunteer. problems with volunteer tourism

#7 Increased dependency in host communities

Another one of the most concerning problems with volunteer tourism is dependency.

Volunteer tourists often perform jobs that locals could do. As a result, this invokes dependency for host communities, whereby they begin to rely on the performance of volunteers.

Volunteering programmes often provide emotional and physical support for host communities. However, it is very easy for communities to become reliant on the volunteers and volunteer programmes to support them, whether that’s financial, social or environmental.

For instance, Lauren Kascak, expressed that during her several trips to Ghana, locals favoured international medical volunteers due to the free health care and refused to take health insurance and instead relied on volunteers like Lauren to take care of their medical concerns.

#8 Lack of financial and vocational benefits directed towards host community

Volunteer organisations often make heavy profits from the fees they charge to volunteers.

However, how much of this ends up in benefiting the host community? There are wide debates on the likelihood of volunteer organisations retaining volunteer placement fees for themselves.

Author of the Volunteer Travelers Handbook, Shannon O’Donnell , expressed how she discovered that 0% of her programme fee was passed on to the host community and the family in which housed and fed her. Shannon O’Donnell then went on to develop the website Grassroots Volunteering , a dual database of organisations that connects travellers to causes and communities to support in attempt to decommodify the volunteer tourism industry.

#9 Local employment displaced by free-labour tourists

Why would organisations pay for labour when volunteer tourists are willing to 1) work for free and 2) pay to work for the community? It’s as simple as that.

This is one of the problems with volunteer tourism that many people don’t think about.

#10 Lack of specific skills, knowledge or experience by volunteers

Volunteer tourism projects have minimal requirements regarding the skill set needed to volunteer. And a result, volunteers often commit to programs with little knowledge and understanding of the host community and without the relevant skills.

In the UK and other Western countries there are many regulations and policies that are required of workers of volunteers. In the UK if you do not hold a teaching qualification you cannot teach. If you are not a trained builder you cannot built.

This is not, however represented in the volunteer tourism industry, where many people commit to projects without the necessary knowledge or skillset. This can cause many problems, ranging from the completion of unsatisfactory work to invoking resentment from locals who may be better equipped to perform said duties.

#11 Local environments/communities exploited by volunteer organisations for profit

More often the issues that arise are not with the volunteer but with the organisations themselves.

Many volunteer tourism organisations appear to be driven by profit, rather than be focused on providing meaningful solutions to alleviate poverty or to help the environment.

Many hidden truths have emerged in discussion of the volunteer tourism industry, alliterating the exploitation of local environments and communities by commercial organisations. In fact, in severe cases, the presence of volunteer tourism not only reaps few rewards for the host communities, but actually exaggerates the negative aspects through increased dependency, cultural implications etc, as discussed throughout this post.

This can be seen explicitly in orphanage exploitation. There are growing concerns towards the volume of children being exploited to ‘allure’ tourists and their money. UNICEF, estimate that around 85% of children in orphanages in Nepal have at least one living parent and are, therefore, not orphans at all. Equally exposed, is Cambodia, where there have been a growing number of reports of illegitimate orphanages and orphans.

#12 Cross-cultural misunderstanding

Volunteers often have little understanding and knowledge of the community’s culture, history and way of life. The same applies to local communities not knowing a lot about the volunteers’ culture, history and way of life.

Volunteers require emotional and cross-cultural skills in order to adapt to other environments and communities without jeopardizing potential relationships that can support bridge the divide between the developed and undeveloped world.

However, when volunteer tourism programs aggravate cross-cultural misunderstandings, this can lead to widening the gap between the rich and the poor and creating unequal power relations.

#13 Foreign interest prioritised over local

An increasingly noted negative impact of volunteer tourism is the notion of foreign interest being prioritised over local interest is another one of the big problems with volunteer tourism.

Most volunteer tourism programmes have foreign ownership and are managed overseas, separate from the location in which programmes take place in. Often, profits and personal gain are the priorities of the foreign organisation, leaving host communities’ needs excluded or even blind-sided.

Volunteer organisations make large profits from the fees they charge to volunteers. However, how much of this ends up in the host community’s pockets? How much communication is there between the host community and the volunteer organisation? In fact, it is a recurring issue that volunteer organisations do not address the root problem that needs addressing. 

#14 Volunteers possessing limited volunteering or professional experience

The majority of volunteer programs are drawn towards gap-year students. This means that, more often than not, volunteers bring very little volunteering or professional experience to the program.

Having limited experience means that volunteers may lack cross-cultural understandings and the skills in which you would gain from professional work, i.e. teamwork, management skills, time management skills etc,. These are all skills that benefit the volunteer program immensely and is one of the big problems with volunteer tourism.

#15 Language barriers make it difficult to undertake volunteer work

Language barriers between volunteers and the host can make it very difficult to undertake volunteer work. Not only does it make it difficult to work effectively, it also creates a divide between the volunteer and host which can lead to unequal power relations which is discussed further in #26.

#16 Hosts unclear of the role of the volunteer

As mentioned earlier, hosts are typically excluded from volunteer tourism programmes, and therefore this makes them unclear of the role of the volunteer. They may not understand exactly what the volunteer is doing and how they are contributing to their lives.

definition of volunteer tourism. problems with volunteer tourism

#17 Reinforcements of cultural stereotypes

Many believe volunteer tourism is a form of social capital and that it can break down stereotypes. But this is not always the case. More often than not, volunteer tourism programmes reinforce negative stereotypes of the volunteer tourist. Whether locals believe volunteers are rich, exploitative or ‘snobby’, volunteer tourism can help to reinforce such stereotypes.

Likewise, volunteers may have a specific perception of the local community. They may view them as inferior, poor or lacking intelligence, for example. Again, without an in-depth understanding of the community within which they are operating, such stereotypes can often be reinforced by the volunteer tourists.

This is another example of the problems with volunteer tourism.

#18 Employment losses

There is a common theme in the literature that appears to be employment. Some studies find that locals are displaced by volunteers or have experienced employment losses.

As noted earlier in this post, volunteers undertake various work in the community and override the potential work for the local community.

#19 Volunteer tourism organisations not employing local staff

Next up on this list of problems with volunteer tourism is the issue of payment. Although volunteer tourism organisations have the potential to provide local communities with employment opportunities, they typically do not.

There are a range of employment opportunities for host communities to benefit from, one being the ability to work with the volunteer organisation to be voice concerns and opportunities for the host communities to the organisation. Another would be an opportunity to meet and greet volunteers and guide them to their location. Plus, many more opportunities. But more often than not, host communities are not employed, and volunteer organisations would rather bring in foreign help or use the free labour provided by the tourists.

#20 Lack of quality control and background checks on volunteer tourists

Background checks will depend on the nature of your volunteer role, i.e. with children or vulnerable adults. However, these background checks are very vague and lack concrete quality. Thus, lack of quality control and background checks can potential put host communities and other volunteers in harms way.

According to Privacy Rights – “There is no one law — federal or state — that says all volunteers must be checked. Rather, the rules that apply to volunteers, much like employees, are as varied as the duties volunteers perform and the organizations they serve. Whether a volunteer is required by law to submit to a background check depends on many things, but primarily the kind of organization for which the volunteer work is performed.”

Whilst this issue is relatively unexplored to date, there is some emerging evidence of the negative impacts resulting from a lack of sector regulation. In my research on the perceptions of volunteer tourism, for example, hosts from Nepal informed me that they viewed volunteer tourism negatively due to the amount of sex tourists who were abusing children whilst working in orphanages.

#21 Lack of regulation of the sector

This is one of the most important problems with volunteer tourism that often gets overlooked.

There is a lot of scepticism on the regulation of the sector and the impacts that this may have.

How beneficial are unqualified and unskilled teachers in improving standards of education?

How long will a house last if it has not been built by a trained builder?

Are the animals involved in conservation projects in safe hands if the volunteers have not had the necessary training?

There have been cases of pre-professional medical volunteers treating patients without the adequate training or qualifications – this is not only dangerous but can lead to more harm than good. There have also been reports of people working in industries that they would not be allowed to work in in Western nations, such as paedophiles who work as teachers.

#22 Evidence of colonialism

The idealisation of struggling communities begging westerners to come and lift them out of poverty imitates the old myth of the ‘white man’s burden’ and creates a divide between powers and ownership. The gap between the rich and the poor can lead to the creation of neo-colonial impacts, and there is a wide debate on volunteer tourism and its influence towards neo-colonial relationships.

Vrasti’s text on volunteer tourism in the global south is a helpful research if you are interested in reading more on this topic.

#23 Aid not going to those most in need

As a result of the commercial nature of many volunteer tourism organisations, unfortunately the desired outcomes of volunteer tourism do not always reach the desired recipients.

As mentioned in #11, orphanage exploitation reflects the issues of aid not going to those most in need. Children are exploited to attract volunteers and their money, when in fact these children are not orphanages and do not require the support they are given. When issues like this arise, it drives potential aid away from those in actual need.

This is one of the most significant problems with volunteer tourism.

#24 Inadequate volunteer training/inductions

One of the key issues to arise in literature discussion is the scarce of skills required by volunteers.

Although there are occasions when volunteers require relevant skills, i.e. to practice medical or psychology work, this does not appear to be a commonplace.

Several volunteer tourism projects you will come across will have minimal or no requirements required at all to participate. However, lack of skills can impact the quality of work undertaken, as I have discussed throughout this post.

#25 Hosts devastated when newly established bonds with volunteers are broken upon the end of their placement

There are several studies demonstrating the negative impacts of shortly lived volunteer tourism projects.

Richter and Norman’s study identified the negative impacts brought to the surface when volunteering with children is involved. Their study discovered that the intense bond built between the tourist and the child during the program can have a negative impact, and that children face emotions of devastation when the tourist leaves.

This is one of the more emotional problems with volunteer tourism.

#26 Undesirable power relations created between host and volunteer

The final example of major problems with volunteer tourism to note revolves around the concept of power relations.

Volunteer tourism projects bring together the divided world, and by divided I simply refer to communities from developed worlds and communities from undeveloped/developing worlds.

But volunteer tourism programmes can lead to the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor, which also creates undesirable power relations between the host and the volunteer tourist. A professor of Anthropology highlights the perplexity of volunteer tourism and how it creates a system of inequality.

Conclusion- The problems with volunteer tourism

As you can see throughout this post, there are many problems with volunteer tourism. Initially praised as an act of ‘doing good’, the increasingly commercial nature of the volunteer tourism sector has caused the act of volunteering to be commodified.

In many cases, volunteer tourism projects are organised, packaged and sold by for-profit organisations. This in itself, comes with a range of impacts and issues that all too often adversely effects the people and the environment that are most in need, highlighting the problems with volunteer tourism.

Still thinking of volunteering? Volunteer tourism is not all bad, and it is important to remember this. BUT it is equally important that do your research!

Volunteers are a crucial factor in uplifting extreme poverty conditions and supporting the well-being of communities and environments. But as a volunteer, you need to ensure you are joining a responsible program who endeavour for long-term change.

Do your research and hopefully you will not encounter any of the problems with volunteer tourism!

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