A Responsible Student’s Burden: Voluntourism – A threatening new Business Model

Come vacation time, our social media accounts are regularly flooded with all the amazing things our friends get up to. White beaches, snowy mountain tops and green valleys dominate our feeds July to September. However, when planning that one amazing backpacker holiday, why not do a little good? Transform a local community in six weeks? The opportunity of short term volunteering seems tempting. The gratitude of helping communities, personal growth, and a full immersion into a foreign culture are all things heavily promoted online and are part of a new business model: voluntourism. 

Short term volunteering has grown into a full-blown business. Nowadays, four to six week volunteering opportunities are sold by travel agencies and can cost up to a few thousand euros. The selling point of such travel agencies? Change the world in the morning and vacation in the afternoon. However, the reality is often times the opposite. Such travel agencies may  exploit the communities themselves, as well as the goodwill of students wanting to make the world a better place. The projects highest in demand are with small children, often times in orphanages. 

The problem hereby is twofold. Firstly, the benefits of short term engagement with orphaned children can often do more harm than good. Save the Children, for example, explicitly states that it does not support volunteering in orphanages as the demand for volunteer opportunities drives up the “supply of orphans”. This means that an increasing number of children are institutionalised in countries such as Cambodia, Nepal, and Uganda. Secondly, the institutionalisation of children can cause serious delays in development and is more costly than community and family care. 

The situation is especially dire in Nepal. Here, UNICEF estimates that around 85% of children in orphanages still have at least one living parent. Around 90% of orphanages in Nepal are located around the main tourist hubs, the city of Kathmandu being a centre for voluntourists. Prospective volunteers often have to raise money for their project from family and friends, next to a fee they pay to the agency. This makes voluntourism not only profitable for the agencies but also for the orphanages themselves. 

To satisfy the demand for orphanages, children from the countryside are trafficked into the city under the promise of education and healthcare. Upon their arrival in the cities they are put in orphanages under appalling conditions that encourage the volunteers to donate even more money. Currently, there are NGO’s such as Next Generation Nepal who work with the Nepali government to try to resolve this situation by rescuing kids from orphanages and reuniting them with their families. The responsibility however also lies with the prospective volunteers themselves to ensure they do not fall into the trap of such exploitative agencies. 

It is not reprehensible to want to do some good during your holiday, however the choice of project and country has to be made responsibly. It is important to be informed about the situation of the country you might be going to and what help they might actually need. Do you want to build a school in Haiti? It might be worth questioning the long term plan for the school after it is built. Oftentimes, projects like such end up lacking a sustainable funding plan for teachers and learning materials. 

Additionally, question if the task at hand might not be better executed by a local who would receive a proper wage. In reality, it is most often only sustainable to support projects that are initiated locally. Ultimately, volunteering can be beneficial, but it is important to look for credible NGO’s and to ask yourself what the local community might lack that you as an outsider could bring to the table.


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