Volunteer Tourism: Changing Perspectives

What comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘Volunteering’ and ‘tourism’ put together?

Well, we all know the individual meanings. But the question is, does the message meant to be conveyed change when these two words are put together? I will tell you a story. When I was a student at Edinburgh University, a friend of mine had visited Nepal as a volunteer for a particular organization. Her task entailed building a school for local children. She was in Kathmandu for months, toiling away in creating a positive impact in the local society. 

I was very intrigued by the idea of this project. So when she came back to Edinburgh, I asked her about her experience. 

“Aniket, you have no idea how enriching it was!”, she said.

She explained how refreshing it was to meet new people from diverse backgrounds, working with her fellow team members to build a library for the school. She narrated heartfelt stories, about the times that she laughed, enjoyed, and most importantly, felt proud of the work she did.

This was very exciting for me. But all of this changed within a year.

She revisited the place a year later hoping to reconnect with her newly made friends from Nepal, she witnessed something that surprised her beyond measure. 

The school- the product of her and 50+ volunteers’ collective effort; was demolished by the same organisation she had collaborated with. Why? Because they wanted to make space for the next group of volunteers to build another school for their selfish interests. 

How heartbreaking.

Is this the real meaning of ‘Volunteer tourism’?

Volunteering abroad or ‘voluntourism’ has been emerging as a trend for quite some time now. Every year, thousands of people travel to developing nations to volunteer with the similar aim of helping the local communities that constitute the areas they visit. However, this trend has also been heavily criticised and honestly, I cannot say that this comes as a surprise to me. 

It is a well-documented fact that mainstream volunteering practice eventually amounts to nothing. Rather, it leaves a detrimental effect on the host communities and individuals on its trail. 

In places like Cambodia, orphanages are a booming business, mainly operating on guilt. Western visitors feel sorry for the children, while it capitalizes on their donation. 

Save the Children looked at orphanages in Sri Lanka in 2005 and found that 92% of children had a living parent. A 2006 survey by Unicef in Liberia found that 98% of children living in orphanages were actually not orphans.

And what is a bigger problem is the fact that nobody except the volunteers cares for them. They are just looked at as a profit-making product. So when they kind of form a bond with the volunteers, they see them leaving after a while. This results in huge abandonment issues. 

With respect to construction voluntourism, it is having more of a negative impact than a positive one. Volunteers putting themselves in construction snatches so many of the employment opportunities for the locals. Most likely, they would have done the job much better and need the money more. 

But that’s the sad aspect of voluntouring. Such projects are designed mainly to cater to the customer experience rather than to benefit the communities they choose to volunteer for. Such experiences appeal to the western explorers, and the trust ends up making a lot without establishing any sort of constructive impact in the community. 

The major problem with this sector is it’s showcasing the work as a humanitarian spectacle, making a trend at the expense of the impoverished. While humanitarian work is necessary, the practise of unskilled and amateur humanitarian work without proper monitoring, training, and a structured plan of action adds to the woes of the host communities.  

While such volunteering projects are designed to create awareness and invoke compassion among incoming volunteers, the main issues lie with their wavering commitment, lack of opportunity to implement their skills and passion, and unstructured programs which are created mostly to suit the customers’ demands. Without a prior study of local issues, an overall plan of action for the community and individual development, necessary skills, and a minimum time commitment, the long term impact of such programs becomes questionable.

Fixing the problem

It is time that we step up and define the real meaning of Volunteering Tourism (‘Voluntourism’). That will be possible by fixing the problems with the ‘current meaning’ of those two words.

Novoto is one of the companies which is striving to do the same. According to us, Volunteer travel should be an act which actually leads to creating a positive social impact, and not just a stunt for personal gratification. We understand our volunteer’s zeal to change the world but through their own terms.

Let us demonstrate how we plan on changing volunteering abroad.

Source: Instagram (@deimantedrasutyte)

Step 1: Cause Analysis

The first step towards finding a solution to this problem is to find the root cause of it. For the intricate workings of voluntourism to change, we need to change how one perceives the works, which is from a humanitarian point of view which must be changed to a perspective of cultural exchange. 

At Novoto, we believe in the power of such exchanges, where equal emphasis is put on both the volunteers and the host communities. We believe that having a meal with a local family has a more positive psychological effect than the patronizing act of food distribution. 

That’s why when you volunteer with us, we put you up with local host families to enhance the experience of learning about their way of living, and in exchange, you educate them about yours. We believe that both the volunteers and the host communities have the responsibility to grow in tandem.

Step 2: Understanding the on-ground situation.

The second step is to study the issues that the local communities face and then creating a long-term plan with an aim.  Our project in Hampi stems from problems the locals are subjected to. With hundreds of locally owned tourism businesses demolished unjustly by local authorities

over the last decade, the livelihood of locals which depended on hospitality has taken a hit. Our project is designed to revive the now endangered local tourism industry which also relies on additional human development indices such as education and healthcare.

Step 3: Cultural Exchange, not just Humanitarian Relief

Volunteering is not only about providing a form of humanitarian relief. It is also about personal growth. Imbibe the culture to which you are exposed to! It is very simple to visit a place physically. But how many people actually travel a place through their within? Volunteering allows you to meet people from such a diverse background. Use this opportunity to interact with them, understand their lives, and realize that everybody is the same, despite the difference in privileges. Form a lifelong bond with the place, and also the local communities.

Final Step: Constructing an Action Mechanism at your convenience, likes, and interests.

The third and final step is to construct the mechanism to achieve this goal and initiatives that are taken to monitor this mechanism. A skill-based volunteering programme with a minimum time commitment is what would make your volunteering experience responsible and our goal attainable.

You might be studying business or entrepreneurship at a university, working for a tech company, might be a musician, artist, or thespian with a lifelong passion for education. Whatever your skill sets or passions are, at Novoto make sure you get the opportunity to channelise your talents in a way that has a long-lasting impact on the host communities and that your contribution leaves behind an indelible impact. Our qualified project leaders create personal goals, provide training, and monitor you throughout your volunteering experience to attain the goal you envisioned before embarking on this journey with us.

Only time will reveal when voluntourism will change for good. 

We need to stop this farce. And, without your support, it will never be possible. Let’s show the world the true meaning of volunteer tourism.

Novoto surely aims to be at the forefront of this change, with you being the catalyst – OUR AGENT FOR CHANGE.

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