Travel Tuesday: Voluntourism

This Travel Tuesday, I’m going to be talking about conscious travelling, and the growing industry of voluntourism. We all want to travel with a purpose, and some of the most rewarding travels are ones where we give back. However, voluntourism can have its setbacks, and it is crucial to be mindful of our actions and their impact on communities around the world.

When I was a freshman in college, I went to an involvement fair and learned about a group called Students Helping Honduras. It is a non-profit organization founded by a college student, and colleges all over the U.S. travel to Honduras for a week to help build a school, then come back for spring semester to raise funds to complete that school. I was excited to travel to a new country, but my trip to Honduras ended up being so much more, and I took an additional five trips down to a country and community that changed my life.

The city we visited in Honduras was San Pedro Sula, which at the time was the murder capital of the world with 400 murders every year. Because of this, our trip had a strict itinerary to ensure the safety of the students. We were escorted everywhere by Honduran military, and because of this I cannot give detailed insight on places to go and people to see. The focus of this article is on a fairly new concept called voluntourism.

A study from 2015 showed that the voluntourism industry is worth about $173 billion annually. Examples of voluntourism include:

  • Trips with your local church
  • Visiting a village on vacation
  • Helping a community through your own actions such as building a school or medical center

In a perfect world, voluntourism would be the best way to spend a vacation. However, like all paying industries, voluntourism can have a dark side.

The Issues of Voluntourism

Not all voluntourism organizations are created equal. Many organization reinforce the idea that other countries need to be “saved” by those of Western culture, otherwise known as “white savior” voluntourism. Think about on social media when you see someone that has volunteered in a country and is smiling in a picture surrounded by malnourished children. How is this post contributing to the aid of these children? The fact of the matter is, it’s not. It is reinforcing the idea that these children are not only helpless but inferior, and allows the person volunteering to receive a pat on the back from their followers. While in most cases this is not the intention of the person posting, it has the underlying

Another issue with voluntourism is that many projects prove to be unsustainable after the volunteers leave. An article found that in Ghana, people were less likely to purchase health insurance, because they believed that every few months an organization would come down for a week or so to provide it. This causes several illness-related deaths each year that could have been avoided. Similarly, organizations may go down to a country to build a church, and unskilled volunteers will attempt to build the structure. In many cases, after the volunteers (and money) left, the structure would be unused and unkept in a matter of months.

One of the greatest issues of voluntourism is that it can create a dependency of these countries on the organizations. Giving children a pair of shoes today will not ensure that the child will have a pair of shoes in a month. Handing out medicine today will not fix the healthcare system in the country. This culture of dependency creates crippling results for communities affected by volunteers attempting to help. Read an interesting study on this here.

Volunteer Responsibly

Cutting the ribbon of a new library for the neighboring bilingual school. We took this trip in 2014 and raised the funds to complete the library in 2015.

My trip to Honduras was one of the most transformative experiences in my life thus far. I became educated on the issues of voluntourism, the economic and social challenges in Honduras, and met people that became my closest friends. This article is not meant to demonize volunteering while travelling. Rather, it is to give you the resources and questions to ask when choosing an organization to volunteer with. People educate themselves on a non-profit before they donate money to it, and this same care and research should taken when planning a trip with an organization.

The most important aspect of volunteering abroad is that the organization provides local empowerment. Choose organizations that employ the local community. This not only gives you a deeper understanding of the culture, but is a sustainable method of employment and economic growth. It makes the community a stakeholder in the organization, and the power to make decisions that best suit them.

Honduras workers.PNG
Honduras workers that planned and are constructing a transitional home for local teenage boys.

Along with empowerment through jobs, working with a community you should have the cultural understanding that you are not saving them, but rather are an ally in their growth. You are not the hero of the story, the community is. You are the sidekick, and having this mindset is powerful and creates deeper and more respectful relationships.

Research and ensure that the projects you help with are sustainable. Projects should have a “hand up, not hand out” policy, meaning that they provide local leadership and equity so as to not create a dependency relationship. For example, if an organization were to shut down, local communities would have the skills and independence to continue forward through different opportunities.

If you want to share your story of volunteering, be sure to share in an empowering and thoughtful way. Instead of taking pictures of a baby that you asked to hold from the mother for the picture, dig deeper into these relationships. Learn about the mother of the baby, her life story, and gain that friendship. Post pictures of the students who are going to learn at the school you are helping to build, and learn about what they want to be when they grow up. These stories empower the people you take pictures with, and their stories are the focal point of the post, not yours.

When it comes to my mindfulness on voluntourism, I cannot thank Students Helping Honduras enough for their education on this subject and dedication to education and youth empowerment. My outlook on life was forever shifted through the meaningful relationships I gained in Honduras, the power of social justice, and activism through both my actions and my words.

Reading to students at the Villa Soleada Bilingual School

Our goal is to act as a sidekick to those doing work in their own community. We
offer our program as an alternative to trips abroad that perpetuate oppression
or the idea that western students can “change the world” in one week just
because they come from a more privileged part of the world.

We want our volunteers to leave with more questions than they arrived with – as
well as a new interest in global development.

Students Helping Honduras

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