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Voluntourism: How to Ethically do Charity Work Abroad

Photo courtesy of Wix

A senior in high school, Tom Kingsley took a popular path for religious youth looking to make a difference—he went on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. Now 26 years old, he regrets it.

“We built a church, community center thing in a village that’s a little bit more remote,” Kingsley said. “But, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to have a bunch of high schoolers doing construction work when no one has really any experience doing construction work.”

Kingsley is just one of roughly 1.6 million people every year (a 2008 study by Tourism Research and Marketing) participating in “voluntourism,” the crossbred child of travelling and charity work. Popular subcategories include mission trips, gap years, and alternative spring breaks; chances are high there’s a Facebook friend who paid a few thousand dollars to help poor African children. But with this trend, comes problems.

“You see many instances of people who are going abroad in the name of volunteering or in the name of saying they’re helping the people of the community in which they’re going into,” Kingsley, now in Spain, said via a Facebook Messenger call to avoid international minutes. “But, it’s an excuse to travel—an excuse to be a tourist, to see the sights—and they don’t really care about volunteering.”

Week-long trips like Kingsley’s raise many questions. The inexperienced students building the center might have taken away jobs from more experienced locals, who just simply lacked the resources. Resources that could have easily been donated from the money spent on airfare, food, and accommodations for the travelers. Amanda Rader, a former employee at Carpe Diem, a Portland-based organization offering gap year programs, said critiques like these are valid, and these situations are all too common.

Nonetheless, there’s about 3.4 million high school seniors in the United States thinking about their next move. For those considering a gap year, or anyone else looking to join the voluntourism trend, there’s a few things to keep in mind.

The Program’s Priorities

Rader, 38, joined Carpe Diem nine years ago as a program director in the hopes of improving global education for the better; she believes it necessary for healing the world, but only if done correctly. Rader since left the company, after feeling there was nothing more there for her. Now, she’s consulting and struggling to find a new position with her same values.

“Often times you hear of someone able to travel gaining more than they could ever give,” Rader said over a phone call. “You have to look at which programs are prioritizing the student and letting it revolve around them, and which ones are saying, ‘We just think these partners are incredible and these communities are amazing, we want you to get to know and talk to them too.’”

One major red flag is in the marketing. If phrases and messages are along the lines of “help those who can’t help themselves,” it might not actually help anyone. Language like this falls into a belittling, savior complex, Rader said, and that can be harmful on the community. The key is collaboration.

“You want more language of reciprocity,” Rader said. “It gets super complex and nuanced, but as much as possible striving towards a reciprocal relationship. Such as: ‘these are the learning objectives, and this is the community. We understand their story and what dynamics are going on there.’”

Sustainability and Self-Sufficiency

Kevin Gallagher, a Boston University professor of global developmental policy, said the keyword in cementing a place in the international economy is “diversity.” If a developing nation’s financial and social improvements rely too much on an outside influence, they’ll be destroyed if the agreement falters. Similarly, if they only have the capabilities to offer one product.

Natural disasters or a shake up in global politics are two potential causes of such an instance. Programs looking to help communities need to consider the current and predicted conditions of the international economy and prepare the residents to handle it themselves.

“It’s simple,” Gallagher said. “You can’t be a world economic power if you’re relying on someone else. Diversity in products and influence are important.”

Since graduating from high school, Kingsley has earned a Bachelor's in Linguistics and joined PeaceCorps, a United States government program dedicated to humanitarian and international aid. The goal of programs like PeaceCorps, Kingsley said, is to no longer be needed.

“It doesn’t really make sense in the long run,” Kingsley said. “You’re depending on someone else to volunteer every year. It’s important to teach these communities to be self-sufficient, so they can do it themselves. [The PeaceCorps’s] intent is to make it so you’re empowering the people in the community.”

That’s the issue with many of these trips: what happens after the volunteers leave? Rader suggested asking these questions of the company upfront. If the organization doesn’t have explicit answers, chances are good they don’t have any explicit solutions either.

Qualified Applicants Only

Holes like week-long construction trips are easy to fall into, so it’s important to keep qualifications in mind. A non-medically trained American should probably stay away from anything health-related, for example.

Kingsley has since found his niche; he teaches English in Spain. Programs like the PeaceCorps work through an application process, just signing up is the starting point of a relatively long race.

“The PeaceCorps also offers training so you feel more comfortable going into the community,” Kingsley said. “So you have a three month period where you’re getting cultural information, learning the language, and more technical stuff with what you’re doing.”

Besides knowing the necessary skills, it’s also important to study the factors and players of the community you’re walking into. Nothing is isolated; to understand the issues its people are facing, an understanding of what creates and moves the community is key.

“Within the community, there’s an immense amount of dynamics that one could never know,” Rader said. “Like maybe some wealthy family is getting these contracts to work with these gap years kids, and what about is that forbidding equality in the community and therefore, leading to destruction in dynamics?”


Megan Epler Wood, a professor at Northeastern and founder of EplerWood International, a global tourism consultant firm, assisted in creating voluntourism guidelines for The International Ecotourism Society. The hope was to provide organizations with information on how to do it right. Epler Wood called it some of her “most important work to date.”

The project, funded by the Planeterra Foundation (Epler Wood’s former employer), emphasizes the need for continued action, far beyond the confines of the trip’s timeline.

“For instance, once the road has been built, who will maintain it?” the guidelines read. “How will ongoing programming be developed to continue to support locally-prioritized needs?”

Besides the lasting sustainable impact on the community, it’s also important to consider the impact on the students.

Voluntourism programs don’t come cheap, and many can’t afford them. The opportunity and trip is a privilege, it’s important to choose one that won’t let it be wasted. Rader said she’s an advocate for support and discussions after the program, to make sure the participants got something useful out of it—something besides cool photos and an inspiring story.

“You’re in debt to all of these people that taught you something, all of these families that hosted you, all of these entities that gave you their time,” Rader said. “Hopefully, you’re more aware how unequal and upside down the structures of the world have been set up. What are you going to do to be part of the solution?”

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