Voluntourism: Becoming A Citizen Of The World
September 7, 2019

Having been involved in the volunteer industry for a while, the good, bad and downright ugly issues and discussions surrounding it, fascinate me. It is a controversial topic with people often focusing on either the positives or negatives of volunteering and voluntourism.

Before I get into the topic, I am going to address the two terms that are often interlinked and used interchangeably. By definition;

Volunteering is the act of giving up your time to support others less fortunate; something that is done at, or at least close to, home.

Voluntourism is the combination of volunteering and tourism; people acting as global citizens as part of a global community, giving their time to support others less fortunate. It involves travelling somewhere new to volunteer your time.

I am going to use the term voluntouring as that is what Global Handprints provides; a combination of helping out in a new community while traveling somewhere away from home. Despite the positive sounding description and the fact that volunteer tourism is one of today’s fastest growing trends, there is still a lot of negativity surrounding voluntourism. There is little disapproval of people giving up their time to help out in a homeless shelter down the road. However, as soon as someone says they are jumping on a plane to spend time in a school in Africa, often all sorts of negative comments are thrown around;

Isn’t it better to send money, why do you have to pay to give up your time, why don’t you get involved in a local project, what skills do you have that trump those of local people and so on, are you really going to make a difference to someone’s life, what will you get from the experience, how will anyone else benefit, aren’t you just highlighting the differences between cultures?

Over this series of blog posts, we are going to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly; pros and cons of voluntourism, take a look at short term voluntouring and what that specifically means, what you should look for when choosing a volunteer organization and just why you should voluntour.

There are some very varied opinions out there on whether voluntourism is a positive or negative thing. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as ‘all voluntoruism is good or bad’

Children at a primary school in Uganda playing games in their first ever sports day organised by volunteers.

Children at a primary school in Uganda playing games in their first ever sports day organised by volunteers.

Firstly, lets talk about the good, the concept of voluntorusim; why there’s nothing wrong with it and why it doesn’t deserve ALL the negative press it gets.

As with everything, there is much to consider and, most importantly voluntourism is only beneficial when it is done right. And by right, I mean right for all parties. The communication between organisations, volunteers and community members must be multi directional and fluid, enabling all parties to not only benefit from the time spent with each other but also to openly communicate what it is that they need.

“The fight for justice has never been easy. But human history has always been shaped by the courageous actions taken by those with a vision of a better world…As Global Citizens, we stand against the greatest injustice of our time: extreme poverty. We’re fighting because we know that a world that deprives 1.2 billion people of their basic rights and opportunities is unjust, and unacceptable. We’re fighting because we know that we must be the ones to do something about it.”

Global Citizen

In today’s society we are working towards globalization; becoming Global Citizens interacting with people from different cultures and backgrounds on a daily basis. How can this happen if there is no common ground, no way for us to experience and share the lives of others or for us to share our own experiences and ideas on a global scale? If the benefits of volunteering can be combined with travel too, where’s the harm in that? Not only do you get all the plusses of volunteering but you get them while in new places, surrounded by new people and immersed in a new culture. At the same time, you’re being exposed to all these differences and in situations like that, it’s hard not to look at our values and beliefs, comparing and contrasting them to others.

Travel has long since broken down barriers between countries and cultures, enabling us to see and feel more. However voluntourism goes that step further allowing us to experience and become involved in other people’s lives. It takes us into the communities and cultures we travel to find out more about, stopping us from being onlookers but turning us into active participants. Whether this is for a short time, long time or permanently, it changes us. It changes how we see the world, what we share with the world and breaks down the barriers. I challenge you to find someone who has volunteered overseas and who didn’t return home having changed, at least a little…

With social media being such a large part of most people’s daily lives and making it so easy for us to read about or see pictures of what is happening elsewhere, we are becoming more and more socially conscious. We are aware of what happens elsewhere in the world, our moral compass realizes the injustice of the differences occurring between different countries and, now that the world is accessible, we want to get involved. We don’t want to sit back and just be witnesses to what’s happening around the world, we want to have opportunities to make a difference, coming home being able to say

“We collected data to enable food sharing programs to function well / helped a High School child perfect their essay writing skills / fixed and painted classroom benches so children don’t have to sit on the floor”.

Yes, that’s the selfish aspect, we want to feel better about ourselves but that’s human nature. Who doesn’t enjoy success and accomplishment? If that success comes in the form of helping others, why is that seen as wrong? It’s about the big and the small things and the big changes don’t happen without the little steps that lead to them. We have the power to make the little steps happen, whether that’s at home or overseas.

Global Handprints was established to provide opportunities to volunteer at a grass roots level within communities that receive little, or no, outside help. The focus is on what these people get from the projects and how they benefit from having volunteers getting involved with what they are doing. The communities have ownership over their projects that we work with, we do what they need us to do to make their project run more smoothly, operate well and have the biggest impact it can to meet the need(s) they have identified. Volunteers identify their areas of skill and expertise, bringing passion and enthusiasm with them ready to get stuck in and lend a hand where it is needed. We work hard to make sure that our voluntour opportunities do exactly what we say they will for the people involved – both the volunteers and members of the communities we work with.

Old, broken desks ready to be refurbished by volunteers and put back into primary schools in Sodwana Bay

Old, broken desks ready to be refurbished by volunteers and put back into primary schools in Sodwana Bay

So, with the idea of voluntourism being so positive, what are the all these benefits and why is there such a stigma attached? Follow this blog to receive upcoming posts and join us as we discuss the controversy.

Have you ever taken part in voluntourism? What are your thoughts, is it a good thing or detrimental? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments.

Global Handprints

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Global Handprints gives people like you guys, the opportunity to leave your mark on the world through volunteering and travel. In turn, with your support, Global Handprints is able to invest towards our social purpose, enabling projects and communities around the world to evolve and develop.

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