Barber: Voluntourism May Do More Damage Than Good



By Shaelyn Barber

I wanted to change the world. So at age 15, I journeyed across the globe to Cambodia, intent upon my desire to help the impoverished country. I didn’t know much about Cambodia, its people or its trials. All I knew was that people were suffering, and I wanted to do my part to make the world a better place.

I am not alone — there has been an increase in the amount of people to travel abroad to volunteer. “Voluntourism,” or volunteer tourism, is one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry today. According to National Public Radio (NPR), over 1.6 million people participate in voluntourism annually. Activities include building schools, teaching basic English classes or planting trees.

Most voluntourists, like myself, have the best intentions of hoping to help other people and change the world for the better. Unfortunately, these volunteers are often doing more harm than good.

When I began to educate myself about the impact that voluntourism has on the countries it claims to serve, I was crushed. I cared about the work I had been doing, and I cared about the people I was working for. The idea that my good intentions may have harmed the people I was trying to help was devastating.

One of the most notorious examples of the negative effects of voluntourism lies within the very country I journeyed to. Since the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, Cambodia has been an impoverished nation. There are ample opportunities for school-building, teaching and farming. Some of the most popular destinations for voluntourists are Cambodian orphanages.

Orphanage tourism has become so popular that new for-profit orphanages are being created to keep up with the demand, with a 75 percent increase in their numbers since 2005.

It seems unrealistic the numbers of orphans within a country would increase that much. In reality, 71 percent of the children within Cambodian “orphanages” still have living parents. Sham orphanages coerce parents into sending their children to these places by telling them their kids will have better lives, more food and better educations.

In order to bring in donations from the pockets of volunteers, children are deliberately kept in horrible conditions with no food, little room, no education and inadequate facilities. Instead of using the donations to help the children, owners of these for-profit orphanages take the funds for themselves.

Of course, there are some orphanages in Cambodia that are legitimate and want to provide the best care they can for the children they are caring for. However, even these cases come with problems.

Children need to cultivate long-term relationships with caretakers. When a volunteer comes into an orphanage and forms a bond with a child only to leave a few days or weeks later, that child feels abandoned. This happens frequently as new groups of tourists move through. This continuous cycle can cause children permanent psychological damage.

Americans have this notion it is their job to save the world. We go into foreign countries intending to fix them without any background knowledge. We assume with our wealth and science, we have the knowledge needed to rescue the less fortunate. We fail to listen to the people we claim to be helping, subverting their ideas to our overpowering savior complex. 

If you are planning an international voluntourism trip, think seriously about the reasons you want to go. Saving the world is a noble cause, but one that must be carried out with caution. Look deeply into the organization you are interested in to ensure it’s practices are ethical. Consider the impact you are making on the community you are serving. Remember, people are not tourist attractions and must be treated with dignity.

By all means, save the world, but working as a short-term volunteer abroad may not be the most effective way to do it.

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