Graduates or students with the privilege to pay to travel the world this summer should be doing so ethically, not with the mentality of ‘fixing’ non-western communities or using their degree to be saviors.
Voluntourism is traveling to a county with the intentions of also volunteering, although too many programs are exploiting local communities. This white-washed industry is aimed at recruiting people of privilege who want to “change the world” and make their gap year look admirable on their resume. Companies, such as International Volunteer HQ, ask holiday-goers to pay thousands of dollars to travel to low-income communities, typically in Africa, South America and Asia — for a week to build a house, and a week of water rafting.
But recent college graduates don’t have the skills to build a house, support orphans of war or implement health programs in a culture they aren’t even a part of. Local communities are often left with more issues than they started, with half-built, makeshift shelters and children in orphanages traumatized by volunteers who abandon the community once their holiday is over.
A 2008 study concluded over 1.6 billion people annually volunteer on vacation, constructing around a $2 billion industry. And many of these programs end up exploiting the communities they pledge to be helping, according to an official study stated by The Guardian.
The study found less than a quarter of children in voluntourism orphanages lost their parents, many of these children are bought or rented to create the illusion of a sad orphanage to attract donations from voluntourists.
You may have seen campus representatives for International Student Volunteers, making classroom announcements in your lectures at UCSC. These organizations ask students to pay money to volunteer for work that could be done by local communities, and to implement health or food programs without consulting those communities, contribute negatively to climate change and most importantly pose inadequate solutions to communal issues.
Even disaster relief programs like the Red Cross are problematic. After the 2010 earthquake left millions of Haitian people sleeping outside, the Red Cross raised half a billion dollars and built just six houses. It did not disclose what the rest of the money was used for.
Red Cross workers in Haiti said they saw no disaster relief funding, while corporate directors received hefty paychecks. Paul Christian Namphy, a Haitian water and sanitation official said to ProPublica the Red Cross and Non-Government Organizations’ efforts during hurricane relief had devastating outcomes, causing a Cholera outbreak that plagued the county.
That is exactly the industry being perpetrated by voluntourism, profiting off of the poverty of countries of primarily people of color who almost never see a dime and causing more serious damages.
Celebrities make headlines about volunteering their time in developing countries or for disaster relief. Church groups and spring breakers all pay for round trip tickets across the world, when they could be donating that money to the actual needs of local people, instead of adding a stamp to their passport.
We are not equipped to solve world hunger, especially not by hand delivering cans of beans across the world, that could have easily been mailed or donating money instead for food that is culturally appropriate.
Peace Corps, which is federally funded, is infamous for committing these crimes to sociocultural equity. They aim to “solve” problems in rural communities. In reality people within these communities are losing potential local jobs like building sustainable irrigation systems and carpentry to international “humanitarians.”
If you have the privilege to travel during your gap year, do so without harming disenfranchised communities. Ethical tourism simply means traveling that is beneficial to local communities and their environments.
There are programs that are not volunteer based, but job based, that don’t harm communities. Be an English learning assistant at night school for business people through big companies, work at summer camps, or even programs through governments. Websites such as workaway offer exchange for short periods of time, usually by local people. Volunteering in a youth hostel is also a fair way to live abroad and meet other travelers.
It is vital for westerners to demolish the savior mindset and think ethically about their travels.