Altruism meets voluntourism

Examining the costs and benefits of the wildly popular volunteer trips

Image by: Tessa Warburton
Voluntourism mixes travel with short-term volunteer work.

For many university students, a trip spent mixing volunteer work with tourism in the developing world is a rite of passage.

Coined as “voluntourism,” these blended trips have become a staple in many developmental organizations and groups. They’re advertised as a way for students to expose themselves to new cultures and have more meaningful trips than those spent at a resort, in addition to volunteering with local communities. The trips tend to be short, ranging from a week to a couple months in length.

Often run through organizations that focus on secondary or post-secondary schools, students who participate gain a memorable experience and communities are left better off because of their volunteer efforts, according to the organizations.

One student, Paritosh Arya, Sci ’19, was keen to go on one of these trips.

In his third year, Arya went to Ghana on a fourth month volunteer program through Queen’s Engineers Without Borders (EWB).

He was attracted to the program because it centred around implementing mobile money as a tool for development in Ghana, an endeavour that appealed to him as a major in computeer engineering. 

However, professor David McDonald of the Global Development Studies department offers the critique that a voluntourism trip “benefits the person who’s going more than it benefits the people that are being visited.”

This may be a design flaw. It’s hard to solve problems—which can have extremely complex and deep-rooted origins—over reading week, according to McDonald. These trips can also involve the volunteers doing work they’re largely unqualified to do, such as medical work. 

Additionally, volunteers may create a sense of helplessness for recipient communities, who see a revolving door of volunteers pass through each year. In turn, communities may become dependent on consistently available volunteers. 

Organizing and hosting volunteers can be “typically a very time and resource intensive thing,” McDonald said. The other potential drawbacks include shifting away from long-term, local solutions to objectives that can be completed in a short stay.

When Jessica Hennings, ArtSci ‘19, went to Arviat, Nunavut, it was for 10 weeks.

Through Queen’s Project on International Development (QPID), her initiative was meant to review waste management in the community in efforts to aid environmental sustainability. 

Hennings said the trip was beneficial because it helped her learn more about northern Canada, saying “many of the most striking features of the community could only be captured by visiting and creating connections [within it].”

Her only concern with the program was that, as an intern, her project was prirotized last, which isn’t an uncommon occurrence.

After leaving, Hennings felt she’d had an impact, albeit small, in the community. This isn’t a failure to her: she was aware the time frame couldn’t allow for a complete overhaul of the community’s waste management.

“We travelled to Arviat under no false assumptions that we would revitalize their waste management system, or change the community’s perspective on environmentalism in a summer,” Hennings said.

Life abroad

Back in Ghana, Arya worked at Viamo, where he developed data tracking and analysis software. It could be used for surveys on life expectancy, for example, with cell phones being used to automate the process.

Arya’s experience abroad wasn’t the typical image of voluntourism: he was in a white-collar office in the capital city of Accra. “I was living to a higher standard than I was at Queen’s,” he said.

Upon joining, Arya liked EWB’s model of constant re-evluation.

“You have to collaborate rather than dictate,” he said. And while volunteers were in Ghana for only months at a time, “There’s no such thing as a short term project.” In preparation to leave, Arya felt his training prepared him well for the program. If he could, he’d do it over again. 

But Arya still noticed “there were certainly people locally who could have done [my] job.” Even though the host company Viamo collaborated locally, its ownership was in Western countries. 

The idea of seeing an outsider as a better tool for development than a local was something Shannen Rowe, ArtSci ’19, experienced as well.

She went to Georgetown, Guyana as a Peer Health Educator with Queen’s Health Outreach (QHO). She was there for seven weeks, educating classrooms about physical, mental and sexual health. 

During her trip, Rowe and her group often felt like they weren’t adding much to the local community. Before going, she’d assumed the schools in Georgetown didn’t have any health curriculum. 

This wasn’t the case.

“We went in with the thought they weren’t getting health education, and that’s why we were going in to teach it,” Rowe said. This meant the volunteers would instead teach their lessons in place of the permanent teachers.

Rowe noted the program is meant to be needs-based to the local community, but “depending on what we think is needs-based.” Guyana having one of the world’s highest suicide rates, the initiative decided to focus on mental health and suicide prevention. Rowe said these lessons did end up being useful, as the local curriculum had less of a focus on mental health.

QHO’s educators don’t claim to be teachers. But when in  classrooms abroad, Rowe felt their position as Westerners inflated their qualifications, with the local teachers often introducing them also as teachers.

As time went on, Rowe began to feel useless.

“We didn’t feel like we were needed. [We] saw problems because it’s pretty short term,” Rowe said. She added it took one week alone for the group to be granted access to schools by the Ministry of Education. Additionally, Rowe said some students would come up after class to talk about suicide. She left the trip torn.

“How do we know the kid that came up to talk to us, saying they have had suicidal thoughts, doesn’t do it [since] we’re leaving after seven weeks?” Rowe said.

Her biggest criticism of the trip was the group’s volunteer work at a local children’s aid centre, which they visited twice a week. 

Kids would go to the centre after school to play and have dinner. Some children grew attached to Rowe, despite the volunteers being temporary. One child asked her, “Who am I going to be friends with now?”

“We developed relationships with these kids, and then we left, to never speak to them again,” Rowe said. When she became a program director later on, Rowe ended QHO’s partnership with the children’s aid centre. 

“There was no actual benefit” for the children, Rowe said. 

While she advised stopping the program there, Rowe said “[QHO doesn’t] go into a location with an exit strategy.” 

QHO has been in Guyana since 1989.

In an email statement to The Journal, QHO said they’re “looking into piloting a different location called Essequibo to transition into as [we] transition out of Georgetown.” 

In regards to exit strategies, they said, “This year, our main goal has been to develop an Evaluation Framework that provides Peer Educators with more direction when conducting evaluations and will include policies on how to close an initiative and when the correct time to do it is.”

QHO said it “does not replace education systems already established in the communities with which we work.” They added the Peer Educators consult with local students, school teachers and principals, community members, and community groups to determine which topics to focus on. 

To better serve these communities, QHO stated “A Needs Assessment is being developed to be rolled out in this upcoming summer to be conducted at the start of [the] initiative as an assessment of community resources so that we are able to continually assess the needs and resources available to each community.”

Aware of the faults

As president of Medicine, Education and Development for Low-Income Families Everywhere (MEDLIFE) at Queen’s, Quinn Scarlett, ArtSci ’19, is aware of the common critiques of voluntourism. MEDLIFE trips tend to be during reading week, their most popular location being Peru.

Scarlett said MEDLIFE works to avoid the common mistakes, such as being driven by a heightened resume or likes on social media. He also noted there’s a trend of communities becoming reliant on short-term volunteer help, which is “a crisis that’s going on with a lot of organizations.”

The difference with MEDLIFE, Scarlett said, is it focuses on supporting communities so they develop local capacity to meet challenges. For example, the organization sets up mobile clinics, which are staffed with medical professionals from within the country itself, with the volunteers only shadowing.

“In no way, shape or form am I actually helping with the medical procedure,” Scarlett said. “I’m just there to watch.”

Despite volunteering at a distance, Scarlett said “people can go on these trips and take away this realization of community empowerment.”

“I came back from my [trip] and was inspired to do more work in Canada.”

From here on

The entire MEDLIFE organization has over 60 trips available to take part in for 2019. QHO indicates shifting focus to another region, but hasn’t indicated plans to leave Guyana.

Meanwhile, when Arya was in Ghana, there was an implicit suggestion of deferring to the Westerners first. While local associates at Viamo were in fact local, the country managers in the company were almost always Westerners. 

This lead Arya to believe that while well-intentioned, “Even Viamo [suffered] from this idea of the Westerner at the top, and local people at the bottom.”

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