Much has been written about volunteer tourism (or “voluntourism” as it is widely known) but there are very not many articles or research papers about the development impacts of this form of volunteering. We have all read the negative stories about inexperienced gap year volunteers spending a few weeks helping to build a school where it isn’t really needed and the irresponsible organisations which sell volunteering experiences at inflated prices. But there aren’t many articles questioning the long term impacts of volunteer tourism projects or whether the presence of volunteers is really helping the local community to develop.
A recent article by Ossob Mohamud on the Guardian Africa Network questions the sustainability and effectiveness of volunteer projects in developing countries. She writes about her own experience of voluntourism when she was a College student and concludes that these kind of placements are short term interventions which have little impact and are primarily serving volunteers’ desire to “give something back”.
She also argues that volunteers and sending organisations should be putting more time and effort into lobbying their own governments and advocating for changes to the policies of the rich countries which are creating global injustice. This is an extremely good point and one could argue that by going off and volunteering in a developing country, most people return home with a better understanding of the causes of poverty and will hopefully go on to campaign and support charities which aim for long term change. However, it is important that volunteers are given training by the organisation they volunteer with so they understand development issues before they go on their placement and they are given support and encouragement to raise awareness of the issues faced by people in other countries when they return home.
Another interesting piece of research which I read this week which also questions the long term impact of volunteer tourism is Hanna Voelkl’s summary of her field work in Ghana which was published by the VolunTourism.org website (which publishes some interesting research on the whole volunteer tourism sector). Hanna spent 5 weeks at an orphanage in Ho, Ghana and observing volunteers who spent 2-5 weeks there. She found that although there was a steady flow of volunteers, providing constant support for the orphanage both in terms of helping care for the children and providing finances to sustain the local NGO who ran the volunteer project, there was no evidence that volunteers were providing sustainable improvements to the children’s lives and the development of the community. This type of volunteering therefore seems quite pointless because it is also disrupting the lives of the children, causing them to get attached to the volunteers who then leave them, and it also perpetuates images of wealthy Europeans coming to “help” Africans, giving presents and love to the children but then leaving to return to their comfortable lives.
This type of research is really interesting as it examines volunteering from the perspective of the local community and looks at how much they really benefit from hosting volunteers and what the actual development impact is of this kind of volunteer tourism. It would be great to see more of this kind of research and some models for measuring development impact which organisations could use to monitor their own projects and publish the outcomes. If they can then take this to the next level and publish their findings on their websites, prospective volunteers could clearly see the impacts of volunteering with an organisation and it will help them to feel they are actually doing something useful, rather than reflecting Ossob Muhamed’s experiences of a volunteering experience which only benefits the volunteer.