It was blazing hot just like yesterday, the day before yesterday and the day before that as we rumbled up the mountainside toward the remote village tucked away in Trinidad’s lush jungle. We were a group of about 20 volunteers—mostly teenagers, half from the United States and half local Trinidadian youth—there for the summer to “do some good” in local community service projects. This particular project was to paint the local schoolhouse. The first day we had arrived with brooms, scrapers, and wire brushes to prep the old concrete building for painting, the villagers greeted us with coconuts which they hacked open with machetes and served to us whole. However, one day we arrived at the schoolhouse and found all our paint was missing. Upon further inquiry, we discovered that some of the villagers had actually stolen the paint. The reason? The villagers had (mistakenly) believed the paint had been purchased with government money but preferred that the money be used on something other than painting the schoolhouse.
Since the 1960s, trips such as the one I was on at the tender age of 16 have become increasingly popular in the United States and elsewhere. So much so that they have been given their own term: “voluntourism” or volunteer tourism. It is estimated that in 2011 there were over 10 million people (mostly from developed countries) travelling and volunteering abroad (primarily in developing countries). Rather than booking an all-inclusive vacation at the Sandals resort, more and more people are paying for excursions in which they can see some of the local sights as well as volunteer at an orphanage, help with local wildlife preservation efforts, or give out humanitarian aid after a natural disaster.
However, there are two sides to every coin, right? When anything grows in popularity, there will invariably be people seeking to make a profit out of it. For example, Cambodia’s orphanages have almost become a “business.” Several orphanages intentionally keep their orphans in squalor in order to attract foreign volunteers and by extension foreign donations. However, in some cases the majority of the volunteer’s fee actually ends up in the pocket of project organizers, both foreign and domestic. These kinds of problems aren’t exclusive to Cambodia. Some contend that voluntourism does little substantial good and the literature is chock full of analysis on whether or not foreigners coming into a developing country in the form of foreign aid, World Bank development projects, or voluntourism actually improves people’s lives.
I believe an important aspect of voluntourism isn’t just on the receiving end, but concerns the benefit to the volunteers themselves. My short trip to Trinidad changed my life forever. When we’re teenagers, most of us don’t think much beyond our immediate realm of experience: school, parents, friends, perhaps a part-time job, getting a license… In Trinidad, where we worked under the hot sun digging a foundation for a wall, there was no AC, the showers were always cold, and the cockroaches in our dorm were as big as my thumb. Through that experience, I learned to appreciate things that I had taken for granted in the U.S. and made me want to learn even more about other countries and their cultures. If there are more global-minded young people in the U.S. who are aware of issues that impact the world because of their voluntourism experiences, I can’t think that would be a bad thing. Not only in terms of how we Americans perceive the world but also how other countries perceive Americans.
However, we can mitigate some of the negative aspects of voluntourism by being smart and informed volunteers. Before signing up for a voluntourism project, thoroughly research the organization. According to a charity organization that works in Madagascar and offers voluntourism opportunities, there are a few key questions to ask. First, are the projects things the people themselves have said they needed? Maybe those villagers thought their schoolhouse was fine just the way it was and the project organizers didn’t ask. Second, is the organization in it for profit or charity? Finally, find out what portion of the money you are paying actually goes toward the project; ask to see the accounts.