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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In this time of religious tensions, a small piece of good news can go a long way in restoring your faith in humanity. This positive bit, for example, comes all the way from the United States. Northeast Ohio, to be precise.
👉 In Parma, a small city close to Cleveland, a group of Muslim doctors decided to convert some of the local mosque's spare rooms into a free health clinic where everybody is welcomed, no matter if uninsured or not Muslim.
As reported by local media outlet News5 Cleveland, The Cleveland Ibn Sina Clinic opened just a few weekends ago but more than 30 patients have already received treatment.
"We have the ability, we have the potential, we have the resources,” said Dr. Mansoor Ahmed, who is one of the 20 doctors that committed to volunteering their expertise. "Giving a little bit of your time, I think, goes a long way in making a difference in people's lives," he added.
“A lot of the doctors came here from foreign countries outside the United States looking for better opportunities. Now that they are established, some of them are practicing with hospitals, some of them have their own practice, now they want to come together and give back to the community,” commented Hala Sanyurah, who is the clinic's Communication Director.
The clinic — that will not just focus on primary health issues but also on more specific diseases like asthma, diabetes, and mental illness — is the first free medical facility in the region.
Credit header image: Stu Spivack
The mere mention of the term “polar vortex” elicits thoughts of bitterly cold temperatures and dangerous wind chills. Most people are aware that the frigid air in the Northern Hemisphere is coming directly from the Arctic region, yet they don’t know why polar vortexes happen.
Not surprisingly, this has led to some rather heated debate. One side of the argument claims that the polar vortex is a result of climate change and human activity. The other side suggests this is a natural phenomenon that proves global warming is false and that humans are not involved in altering our climate.
The truth is the former is correct. But trying to convince someone to accept this reality might be a difficult challenge. Thankfully, when it comes to the cause of the polar vortex, there is a relatively easy — and for some, relatable — explanation. Quite simply, the polar vortex gets drunk.
My research expertise is in microbiology, immunology and chemical mechanisms of molecular interaction (think antibiotics).
As a science communicator, one of my greatest hurdles is defining the intricacies of research into language with which people can understand. This means going deep into the literature and finding the mechanism behind the result. It also means having a deep level of knowledge in a variety of different science branches.
In some cases, the information can be difficult to convey to a wider audience. But when it comes to the polar vortex, it’s not difficult at all.
A close examination of the chemistry associated with the onset of these cold snaps reveals a near-perfect resemblance to a chemical shift our bodies encounter during alcohol consumption. The results reveal that both humans and the planet are similarly susceptible to unexpected and unwanted movements.
Most of us can recognize when someone has had too much to drink. Their speech is slurred and they have troubles with their balance. This latter symptom is why the walk-and-turn sobriety test is effective — an inebriated person has trouble moving in a straight line.
Maintaining posture and balance is a complicated neurological process. Research has revealed that one molecule, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), is necessary for us to achieve this goal. Our brains use this neurotransmitter to help control the signals to our muscles, particularly when we feel the effects of gravity or being pushed by another person.
When we drink alcohol, GABA helps us preserve our balance and posture. But once we end up losing the necessary levels of GABA needed to keep us upright, we sway, stagger and stumble. Only when we’ve sobered up and increased our GABA levels are we able to regain our balance.
A similar process occurs in the Arctic.
The polar vortex, officially known as the stratospheric polar vortex (SPV), is a stable air mass that tends to stay put when it’s cold sober. In the same way we feel an internal heat during alcohol consumption, the region can warm up with an infiltration of air from the south, better known as a sudden stratospheric warming. When this happens, the steadiness of the vortex is challenged.
Much like our brains have GABA to maintain stability, the SPV also has a chemical that helps to maintain stability. It’s ozone.
When levels remain high, the vortex stays in place. But should the levels drop, then the vortex starts to sway, stagger and then stumble southward, a process known as outward eddy transport. Depending on how low the ozone levels drop, the vortex can stretch well into the southern United States and Europe. Eventually, the SPV sobers up, the ozone levels recover, and the air mass stays up north. But this recovery can be slow and leave those affected freezing for weeks instead of days.
As to what causes the ozone loss, it’s a reaction with a variety of chemicals in the air. Researchers can observe the process in real time and have found that the offenders are not alcoholic in nature but happen to be compounds that contain nitrogen and chlorine. The Earth produces these chemicals in the form of volcanic output and forest fire emissions, and this can lead to a drunk polar region.
Thanks to real-time examinations of polar vortex movements over the last 20 years, we can easily finger the culprit: industrial air pollution. These commercial activities produce more than enough of the nitrogen and chlorine chemicals to reduce ozone levels and cause those drunken staggers. The data clearly shows that the blame for the rise in those cold blasts falls squarely on us.
As this winter’s supply of polar vortex events comes to an end, so should the debate over whether the polar vortex is real — it is — and whether these movements are due to human activity — they are. Until we find ways to reduce our dependence on ozone-removing chemicals, all we can do is hope for the best and brace for the worst.
Here at Kinder, we're often busy thinking about the future of philanthropy and how charitable organizations will look like 100 years from now.
However, every now and then, it's also helpful to look back at history and realize that there's a handful of charities that have been around for so long that there's certainly something we can learn from them.
One of them is the Hospital of St. Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty in Winchester England, that actually prides itself to be the UK's oldest charitable institution.
Founded around the year 1132, the almshouse was initiated by Bishop Henry of Blois to support thirteen poor men who were unable to work and to feed some 100 people who showed up at the gates every day.
The thirteen men became known as the "Brothers of St. Cross". Despite the religious connotations of the term "brother", the Brothers of St. Cross were not and are not monks, therefore St. Cross is not a monastery.
The Wayfarer's Dole
The Hospital of St. Cross' most unique and famous charitable endeavor is surely the so-called "Wayfarer's dole".
According to this delightful tradition, every visitor of the almshouse can ask for a free horn of beer and a morsel of bread. As recalled by the organization's website, the custom was started by a monk from Cluny, in France, whose holy order always gave bread and wine to travelers.
After so many centuries, this tradition still continues nowadays as seen in the BBC's program Songs of Praise👇
The Hospital of St. Cross, which is hosted in a beautiful medieval building immersed in the British countryside, is regularly open for visits. Head to the organization's website for additional information.