Horrified by Voluntourism Trips

I asked everyone to send me their new projects for 2012, and I have to say I’ve never been more horrified by my inbox or more fearful for the state of this industry. There are companies out there still that don’t think about the repercussions of their trips – below are a couple examples of what I saw that scared me – am I wrong or are these trips just scary?

  • Sending volunteers into a refuge for sex traffic victims to provide them ‘spiritual counseling and therapy’ – REALLY? WITH NO QUALIFICATIONS?
  • Teach children with disabilities at a special needs school – AGAIN, NO QUALIFICATIONS OR BACKGROUND CHECK REQUIRED

Really people? I wont list the loads of horrible trips, but wanted to get some feedback on if I’m wrong or if the above trips are just plain old irresponsible.

So that brings me to a question, what do you do when creating new trips/projects to be sure they result in positive change for all involved??? It appears we definitely need a list of how to do this.


11 thoughts on “Horrified by Voluntourism Trips

  1. *shudder*

    The first one is esp. scary. At one stage I was looking at starting a fair trade project with people forced into the sex industry in the Philippines.

    Two minutes of research revealed that it is just too damn dangerous to send volunteers (even trained volunteers) into such a scene.

  2. you are absolutely correct in being horrified, Even stints in orphanages and schools is detrimental…what kind of message does it send out but we can’t do anything for ourselves. These jobs are permanent jobs for the semi skilled youth of the host countries.

    But then again what is it really all about….profit for the agencies foreign but mainly local. As you said it is an industry.

    Remember there is nothing altruistic about aid, especially voluntourism.

  3. For us at Globe Aware, it is all about the community we serve.They pick the projects they feel are most necessary, they decide how it gets done, and we work side-by-side to get it accomplished. We are not trying to rescue anybody or “save” anybody. We create relationships where we learn about each other and we create projects that provide sustainable ways of serving the communities needs.

  4. Grrr some idiot PR guy just called me ‘irresponsible’ for pointing out some flaws in his client’s trips. I didn’t post those trips on this blog just because I was feeling nice. Note to all you PR peeps out there – if you ever want me to cover your client don’t start by telling me I’m irresponsible.

    I try my best to bring up real issues on this blog to encourage debates that move us all forward, if you can’t handle the fire…

  5. Just emailed this comment:

    Karen Timcoe Cox
    We have not done any voluntourism yet, but when we went to Peru we saw another bad example, though not as bad as the ones you mention. It was an animal sanctuary, and they were helping the animals somewhat, but mostly what we saw was a bunc…h of college kids who’s parents probably paid $$$$ to send them there, and the kids seemed to have little direction, and there more to bring in the money than to do meaningful work. But what did they spend the money on? The place was shabby, in need of repair, and the kids seemed bored and did a lot of sitting around. Husband is an architect so if we could find a good program, someday would like to get a school built (Africa…??), where we could really WORK to make a difference, not just donate $$ and pretend to work. How do you FIND the good programs, let alone create them?

  6. Good on you, Alexia for highlighting what are absurd projects to be promoting…weird that the PR guy was attacking you when you did not even name the company.
    We at Hands Up Holidays are on a continual learning curve, and are aware of the need for vigilance and monitoring of projects that may have started out as worthy, but for whatever reason are no longer so.
    Our approach is essentially the same as Aubrey at Globe Aware said: we consult with communities and ascertain their needs, rather than impose on them what we think should be done.
    First-hand engagement with a community is vital, and as I mentioned, this needs to be ongoing.
    We are very conscious as well that what many communities need more than unskilled foreigners is, obviously, skilled foreigners, and also funding…when used sensibly, our relative affluence can be put to great good, and, when combined with the meaningful interaction that arises from voluntourism, this can be very powerful and effective in meeting genuine community needs, be it for financing classrooms and funding to pay the salaries of local teachers, or funding medical clinics, and equipment, and funding the salaries of doctors and nurses.

  7. Holy crap. Unqualified counseling to sex traffic victims, really? That’s infuriating…any trip I’ve gone on has been something I can justify a short stint with, and something that doesn’t need extensive training, like beach cleanup or trail work. Those examples above are just ridiculous and while it would be nice to say I can’t believe they exist, the sad fact is I’m sure we’ve come across way too many trip options like them.

  8. I never thought it would be this hard to compile a quick list of GREAT volunteer trips, kind of sad. The press call me all the time folks and if I dont know what you have to offer that’s awesome I cant recommend you.

  9. Just got this from the folks whose trips were mentioned above in response to this blog post. Does this solve the issue? Or does it just point out the necessity in voluntourism to use the correct language when we market?

    I’ve seen your blog post from earlier this week (Sept 19th), and it looks like you specifically called out a description of one of our programs as “horrifying.” I hope that with this additional information, you will see that ProWorld cares very deeply for the communities and projects where we work, and never puts unqualified individuals into roles that require training or special qualifications.

    The most important piece of information I’d like to share, regarding our programs, is that what volunteers do is assist. They never work on their own or are unsupervised by the staff at the organization where they work. We, and the projects, are aware that participants are often young people, usually with no specialized skills or training, who just wish to contribute in some way and make a trip which is more meaningful. Their work consists in assisting staff in the organizations, helping with the organizations maintenance, and learning about the organization and the problems they face.

    The description we have on the ProWorld website first describes the work done by the organization or project (not by volunteers). It is simply background information. Perhaps, when reading the description, it was assumed that volunteers would be doing all the items listed, when actually that is a description of the overall work that the organization does? I can see why this might be confusing. The ProWorld website only provides a brief overall description. When a volunteer is interested in a specific project, they have a call with a ProWorld representative who explains the program in much more detail, including the specific details of what the volunteer will be doing (and what they will not be doing or are unqualified to do). In almost all cases, what volunteers do is mainly assistance in very unspecialized activities, such as general chores in the farm, school, assisting with arts and crafts, etc. So, for example, when you mentioned in your blog post “spiritual counseling and therapy” – that is something that the organization does, not the ProWorld volunteers.

    Specifically, in the organization that helps women affected by sex trafficking, a volunteer would never counsel the women or provide them with psychological help or anything like that because the organization has trained professionals who do this. Participants receive basic training about what is expected of them, what to do or not do, etc. and their work is helping and providing educational activities for the children of these women (at the daycare center) helping with daily maintenance of the facilities, helping in workshops (teaching English, cooking or other skills), which are organized and run by the organization’s trained staff. Participants are never “in charge” of any responsibilities. In addition, in this particular organization only female participants are allowed to work and they have direct contact with the women only in workshops or activities planned and authorized by the trained staff at the organization. RAHAB, the organization that helps women in the sex trade has a director (who was awarded the HEROINE AGAINST MODERN-DAY SLAVERY award in Washington, D.C., from Hillary Clinton), a coordinator for computer area, a coordinator for cooking courses, a coordinator for sewing courses, three people working in the daycare center plus administrative and maintenance staff. Again, the ProWorld volunteer’s main role is to assist.

    In the school for disabled children what ProWorld volunteers do is assist the trained teachers and staff who work there. They never provide any specialized work and are never in charge of responsibilities such as teaching special skills, physical rehabilitation, etc. For example, the school has a building with main administrative offices and three buildings for each educational department: Hearing & Language; Mental Retardation; Visual Deficiencies. The staff at the school includes a general director, a general secretary, 150 people in the administration and 93 teachers. The school is accredited and supervised by the Costa Rican Ministry of Education. Again, the ProWorld volunteers main role is to assist.

    In all cases, ProWorld volunteers are absolutely supplemental labor, and not vital to the day-to-day running of any of the operations. All of the organizations we work with have paid trained staff for the day-to day running. Across all programs, we do not “set up” projects just to provide work for the volunteers. We place them in recognized organizations that have been running for years and that have trained staff. For example, while the ProWorld program in Costa Rica is new, the NGO has been working there for 15 years, and has never had any issues with volunteers during all that time. The volunteers provide supplemental labor, cross-cultural interaction, additional donations that are much needed (though their ProWorld project fee), and increased exposure for the organization.

  10. Even after 10+ years running my own business sending volunteers abroad, I am still amazed at the sheer number of websites and “companies” (new and established) who offer “life-changing” trips abroad.

    It’s still the wild west when it comes to the volunteer travel industry. And it will continue to be so, IMHO, because it’s not regulated or tracked in any comprehensive way, and most people on the street don’t even know it exists. And, the action takes place thousands of miles away.

    How could one know who is a “leading” company in this industry? It’s impossible; a fact which cannot be lost on those publishing such descriptions.

    I truly feel for the parents who call me and are simply overwhelmed when trying to sort through all of the websites. Their first questions are always – just what the heck is this business all about, what will my kid be doing abroad, and — who are you people exactly?

    I’m only too happy to spend hours telling them all I know about the business, not just my programs but the industry as a whole. I try to dissuade them from notions of saving the world etc, and I end up turning away parents and their kids regularly when it seems their expectations aren’t realistic.

    I’ve kept thinking all these years – there simply has to be an industry shake-up eventually, no? Or else all of the misleading, and downright lying, companies and their websites will continue to operate, with new ones coming out of the woodwork weekly.

    On a positive note, I believe that as time goes by, only the companies offering realistic and valuable trips abroad will flourish – because of word of mouth from past volunteers and from real examinations of the projects and benefits. The former, if they are honest, are some of the best sources for feedback on this industry.

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