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Monday, December 11, 2023

'Voluntourism' blurs the lines

A brave soul stands in front of the class, waiting for his time to shine. Once the murmuring dies down, he jumps into an energetic, well-rehearsed pitch for his volunteer group, spewing examples of adventures to be had and sights to be seen. He passes out a collection of colored sheets that reiterate his point, leaves and finally lecture can begin.

“Voluntourism” is a booming industry that has been cultivated by global interconnectedness and supported by wealthy communities with enough disposable income that they can afford to travel abroad to help others. Its problem, however, is that it can’t decide if it’s a full-on service trip or a vacation—and by trying to be both, it ends up being neither.

Most people who partake in “voluntourism” trips do it with the belief that the work they’ll be doing in the far-flung communities they’ll be visiting is making a tangible impact on those communities, as well as their own lives. Whereas many people do come away from their trips having had a life-changing experience or an epiphany about the arbitrariness of reckless consumerism, it’s decidedly less clear whether or not the work they do helps in the long run.

Though many people who go on service trips come away with a feeling of accomplishment (and at least one social media photo of them holding an undernourished child), red tape and complex issues within the countries accepting volunteers stand in the way of effecting real change.

I went on a service trip myself in July of 2013, visiting a small community in northern Tanzania. Though I felt I made a positive impact on the area, helping kids do better in school, bringing them supplies and teaching them English, I soon realized that the work we did only made a tiny dent in the region’s problems.

Mere months after we had left the region, one of the orphanages we visited ran into trouble because they were incapable of paying their water bill; the government shut off their water and they were only bailed out when a group of investors paid much of the bill for them. It was then that I realized that the impacts made by visiting these communities are ephemeral, and that there are myriad other troubles they have to face when all the volunteers go back to their cozy hometowns.

One of the most appealing aspects of going on service trips is the sightseeing. Most groups will spend a certain amount of time working in their respective communities, then go off on an amazing adventure. These side journeys are a focal point of volunteer groups looking to recruit people: instead of advertising trying to help severely impoverished people worlds away, they shine a light on the time spent swimming with dolphins, going on safari, climbing a mountain and more.

The main problem with this industry is that it wavers between a Peace Corps-esque commitment to making an impact and showing people the world. If the real purpose of the trips is to work hard and make a difference, why are we shelling out hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to provide this free labor? Or, if people want to go see a new, beautiful part of the world, why are they letting their vacation be interrupted by manual labor?

While it’s nice to see the world and get the feeling of validation that goes along with service trips, they’ve lost their meaning over the years. It tries to promote itself as a way to both make a big impact on the lives of others, but until it starts to actually help the communities in need, it remains a very costly way to make much ado about nothing.

What do you think of Sebastian’s perspective? Please send all thoughts and comments to

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