Volunteer-tourism or 'voluntourism’ is promoted as a meaningful and ethical holiday choice, offering authentic experiences that are also beneficial to host communities. The central component of volunteer-tourism is for the ‘voluntourist’, usually from the Global North, to be entertained whilst simultaneously helping others, usually in the Global South.
Common voluntourism activities include English Language Teaching (ELT), medical aid trips, and visiting schools and orphanages. Such is its appeal that voluntourism is now a multi-billion dollar industry that sees over 1.5 million well-meaning individuals volunteer overseas every year.
Voluntourism has been promoted as an effective tool for boosting cross-cultural understanding and exchange, which could ultimately encourage greater critical approaches to global issues such as poverty and inequality.
However, there is also a growing body of critique from academics, activists, and beneficiaries who argue that voluntourism actively harms the communities it targets, let alone benefitting them.
At least 90% of all voluntourism projects take place in the Global South: Latin America, Africa and South-East Asia. This brings accusations of power imbalances, the reinforcement of structural white privilege and even ‘neo-colonialism’.
One of the biggest critiques of voluntourism is its tendency to send unskilled individuals from wealthier countries to poorer countries to work in jobs they would be unqualified for back home.
In many cases, this also leads to saturating the workforce in many countries that already have chronic underemployment. Problems exacerbate as many volunteers have little or no training and often deliver assistance in short-term stints.
The lack of skilled volunteering is compounded by a tendency to work in areas where the real needs of the target community are largely ignored. Typical critiques describe how certain voluntourism companies arrive in a ‘third world’ village, build a well or a school, without even assessing whether they were even needed in the first place.
In my own experience, I visited a school in South Africa someone had donated tablets to be ‘used in the classroom’. The donors had forgotten to include chargers for the tablets, or any instruction on how to use them for pedagogical purposes, and so they ended up being used as coasters.
The influx of unskilled labour also causes its own additional issues. One former volunteer described taking part in an orphanage-building project in Tanzania, in which local men dismantled the structurally unsound work they had done each night, relaying bricks and resetting timbers while the well-meaning students slept (Brown 2014).
The most cynical critics state that volunteer opportunities are more significant in changing the volunteers’ social media feeds than changing even their own perspectives, let alone the communities themselves.
One academic suggested that volunteers are not necessarily driven by goodwill but are instead '...discerning consumers who carefully choose their field of activity and expect a fundamentally self-interested return on their investment, whether it be in the form of self-actualisation, work experience, Facebook profile picture or college reference.'
Satirical newspaper ‘The Onion’ captures this more succinctly in its spoof headline: ‘6-day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture’.
Meanwhile, another study found that volunteers tend to maintain a misrepresentation of a generic abstraction, such as ‘Africa’, that is biased and perpetuates misunderstandings of poverty.
In such cases, a racialized needy ‘other’ is (re)constructed as a passive recipient awaiting the benevolent hand of the West. Many volunteers also adopt antagonistic and superficial understandings of poverty, seeing poverty at home as different to poverty ‘over there’, effectively missing the point on shared systems of inequality that affect all people in poverty regardless of geography.
Furthermore, and despite stated aims, voluntourism often fails to bridge the empathy gap, and can even reinforce negative, even racist stereotypes of the target communities.
Perhaps the strongest critique of voluntourism is that it actually reinforces the underlying structures of poverty and inequality that it seeks to alleviate.
Journalist Tina Rosenberg argues that voluntourism is built on 'perverse economics'. She explains: "The aspiration to help the most vulnerable [...] is a noble one, but the booming business of voluntourism sustains practices and institutions that actually do harm".
Indeed, governments in voluntourism hotspots around the world are often reluctant to fund anti-poverty measures when treatments for the symptoms (e.g orphanages) essentially drop from the sky.
Recent studies have also found an inverse relationship between profit and responsibility whereby companies that charge the most are also the least transparent, and so fall the furthest from voluntourism’s central ethic.
The worst culprits have also become adept at hiding or misrepresenting their finances, masking excessive profit margins to the detriment of target communities and volunteers alike.
Meanwhile, working with young people in particular risks perpetuating feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. When children are dependent on random strangers for affection, it stunts their ability to form healthy attachments particularly when volunteers disappear after a few weeks.
Perhaps the darkest side of voluntourism has been revealed over the previous years in the case of orphanages. Following decades of research into childcare, orphanages in much of the ‘developed’ world have been replaced by foster care; yet people from these same places are nonetheless maintaining a stream of charitable giving that makes orphanages viable businesses abroad.
Donors, usually from religious groups, often set up orphanages as ‘short-term’ responses to crises such as conflict or natural disasters; but the steady stream of donations encourages these orphanages to stay open longer-term.
The demand to work in orphanages in countries such as Cambodia and Nepal has furthermore been found to contribute to the abandonment, or even abduction of children from their parents to fuel the tourist boom.
The negatives are so severe that the Australian parliament is considering a law to label orphanage tourism as ‘child trafficking’ and ban it entirely.
In 2016, the London School of Economics also set up a consortium of universities pledging not to advertise orphanage placements to their students. With any luck, the trend of orphanage volunteering will dissipate as a result.
Given these criticisms, it is easy to see why there are increasing calls for people to volunteer closer to home and avoid volunteering abroad altogether. Sadly, voluntourism as an industry encapsulates how the best-intentions of volunteers can lead to the detriment of target communities. Can international volunteering only reinforce structures of inequality and dependency? Or is there a way to make it more sustainable and ethical? At any rate, the demand for voluntourism is not going to disappear overnight, so perhaps there is value in trying.
Were you thinking about going voluntouring before reading this article? As explained above voluntouring isn't just harmful to local communities but it is also an expensive endeavour for the volunteers themselves. How about instead of paying the recruiters hundreds and thousands, you take yourself on a nice holiday and donate the money you save? Your money will have much more impact with established effective organisations.
The Max Foundation is one such organisation. The Kinder vetted charity focuses on two outcome areas in South Asia: improving child health and providing water sanitation services to households. The foundation saves and improves the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, especially children, every year. By donating below, you too can have a positive impact on the lives of these people.
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Join us for the second of our Kinder Conversations - the Sky has a Limit.
Following our investigation into the Future of Meat in February, we've turned our attention to the sky. We'll be talking about whether air travel can be more sustainable, and how.
We're delighted to be hosting this event in collaboration with our friends at TQ, the Amsterdam tech hub where we're based.
📅 When Monday 17 June 18:30 - 20:30
📭 Where TQ, Singel 542, Amsterdam
🎯 Why should I fly Kinder? To hear about the latest research and technology making air travel more sustainable. To find out what you can do to reduce the impact your flights are having. To share a drink with like-minded travelers, and sample some of our vegan snacks (including beloved Professor Grunschnabel ice cream, as seen at the Future of Meat event)
Here at Kinder, we believe that greener travel is one of the key ways in which we can tackle the climate crisis. Travelling green can mean a lot of things, but right now we’re concerned about the aviation industry.
If aviation were a country, it’d be a top 10 polluter - and C02 emissions from air travel are growing many times faster than any other form. We’re already in a very dangerous position, and although there are many potential solutions, we sometimes feel overwhelmed and uncertain about what to do about it.
That’s where Kinder Conversations comes in.
Kinder Conversations is a series of events which delve into the biggest issues facing the world.
At the Sky has a Limit, we’ll be bringing together representatives from research and technology, the aviation industry and the not-for-profit sector to talk about sustainable air travel. We’ll hear more about the problem, and a lot more about the solutions.
Plus, there’ll be time to get a drink from TQ’s bar (buying a drink helps our friends from TQ support more events like this), try some vegan ice cream, and chat to fellow travellers about the steps you can take to travel greener.
✈️ Are you ready to #flykinder? Then secure your boarding pass here.
I don't have a driving license and when pressed about getting one by friends tired of chauffeuring me around I usually say I will only get one if I can drive something cool, like the Batmobile or a flying car. Unfortunately, I might have to honour that promise as it seems that flying cars are finally taking off (alas, no commercial Batmobiles in sight).
Indeed, several promising startups around the world are working to deliver the "car of the future" over the next few years. Like the Dutch company PAL-V that showed off a limited edition of its flying car at the Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland.
The PAL-V is a hybrid between a car and a helicopter (or more precisely, a gyrocopter), able to reach a top speed of 160 km/h on the tarmac but also get airborne in just 5 minutes, hitting airspeeds of 180 km/h over a range of up to 500 km. But since buying a PAL-V will set you back around € 350,000 I might have to pass on this one. Moreover, flying this beauty requires not just a driving license but also (understandably) a license to fly, and that's just too much for me.
Thankfully, other companies are developing vehicles that need no driver at all. Aerospace manufacturer Bell Helicopter, for example, is working on Nexus, an air taxi capable of taking off and landing in the middle of a city (whereas the PAL-V still needs a runway, albeit short, to get airborne).
Called VTOLs (short for Vertical Take Off and Landing), these aircraft aim to become sort of an Uber of urban air travel, bringing customers to the opposite part of the city or even to a nearby city in a matter of few minutes.
If you're at JFK airport in New York, for example, and have a meeting in Manhattan, instead of embarking on a 1-hour, Cosmopolis-style taxi ride, you could just hail a flying car and be downtown in 5 minutes.
Futuristic as it may sound, concrete plans to make it come true are underway. Earlier this month, German startup Lilium successfully completed the first test of its new five-seater Lilium Jet, an electric vehicle that, according to the company, will have a range of 300 km and a top speed of 300 km/h.
The reason electric flight is such an exciting area of research is not just because flying taxis will allow a handful of high rollers to drastically cut on their commuting time. Electric flying cars might be really good for the environment too.
A recent study published by Nature highlighted that, in some cases, flying cars could eventually be greener than even electric road cars, cutting emissions while reducing traffic on increasingly busy roads.
Moreover, developments in the field of flying cars could also boost the research on electric flight at large, including long haul electric flights, sort of the Holy Grail of aviation. And, as known, the civil aviation industry needs to find effective ways to lower its carbon emissions as soon as possible.
However, as explained by Hugh Hunt in an article on The Conversation that we republished here on Kinder World, "gaps in necessary technology and practical uncertainties beyond the cars’ promising physics mean that they may not arrive in time to be a large-scale solution to the energy crisis and congestion."
Let's get this one thing straight: most people prefer flying to other modes of transport, and we seem to do it more and more often. The airline industry is booming and 4.1 billion passengers have been transported last year. Almost every figure one looks at shows the impressive increase in flights over the last two decades.
Alexandre de Juniac, head of the International Association for Flight Transport proclaims: “In 2000, the average citizen flew just once every 43 months. In 2017, the figure was once every 22 months. Flying has never been more accessible. And this is liberating people to explore more of our planet for work, leisure, and education. Aviation is the business of freedom."
However, this ‘business of freedom’ runs on fossil energy carriers as planes still almost exclusively fly on kerosene. Kerosene is a fuel produced by oil refining and carbon dioxide (CO2) is the major product of burning kerosene. The 2-5% of all global CO2 emissions the aviation industry emits is caused by its fuel consumption (and choice). And unlike other fuels like diesel or gasoline, airlines don't pay taxes on kerosene in most countries — making cheap air travel possible.
In 2018 Europe’s biggest airline Ryanair became number 9 in the list of Europe’s biggest CO2 emitters and still claims to be the ‘greenest and cleanest airline’. Andrew Murphy – the aviation manager at the European Federation for Transport and Environment — argues that Ryanair the new coal when it comes to climate pollution. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, on the other hand, dismisses such claims by saying the claims are ‘’complete and utter rubbish’’.
Other airlines, like KLM who partly uses renewable jet-fuel, are acknowledging the problem but they aren't too far behind Ryanair on the list of emitters.
The growth of the industry is not expected to slow down. India and China are the biggest growth markets, the latter alone is building 200 new commercial airports in the next ten years. Moreover, industry forecasts suggest that emissions will rise by 700% until 2050 which amounts to more than 4% of the world’s remaining carbon budget.
If we want to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, every the average earthling has a quota of two tons of CO2 per annum but just a return trip between New York and Amsterdam generates three tons already.
Compared to other modes of transport planes are the biggest CO2 emitters per travelled kilometre followed by cars, buses and finally trains which are the least polluting. The CO2 emissions, however, are only one half of the medal. The impact of flying on global warming is different than most other transport as it happens in the air high above the ground where the processes that cause or reduce global warming happen. These include CO2 and nitrogen oxide emission but also cloud formation, ozone and soot as well as methane reduction.
The climate impact of the emitted greenhouse gases in the stratosphere are three times higher than on the ground. Flying also causes condensation trails and fog clouds in certain weather conditions. Such clouds can have a warming or a cooling effect on the climate. One way to improve the climate effect of flying would be planning better routes where warming clouds are avoided and the formation of cooling clouds is favoured — our current routes have an overall warming effect.
So, hypothetically, some flights with clever flight-route planning might even reduce global warming. However, as we don't have time to hypothesise, we need to find and urgently implement other ways to bring down the impact of flying, like using better fuels or even better planes.
This article was written by Eric Schuler for Kinder World. Schuler is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam and works on new industrial sustainable chemistries to turn captured CO2 into useful things such as plastics or fuel. He's also a photojournalist with an interest in climate and land-use change.