The first thought that may come to mind when thinking about changing the world is volunteering. Providing a skill set that a person has developed through experience for a cause of benefiting underprivileged communities that need it. In recent times, the idea of helping such marginalized communities through pure goodwill and anonymity has gradually diminished. Increasingly, our privilege and disparity within society have caused individuals to look at voluntourism through the lens of self-discovery and ‘walking a mile in their shoes’ mentality. However, it’s important to consider if a person can ever truly understand the situations or lifestyle disparities that these communities have survived with their privilege that is ever-present. Analyzing the nuances within the concept of humanitarianism and volunteering is important because even the most well-intentioned efforts can cause harm.
The commercialization of voluntourism has brought a flurry of problematic and saddening consequences for these vulnerable communities. The most prominent of these issues are poignantly presented within Tomazos and Cooper’s (2011) abstract:
“Volunteer tourism as a phenomenon and as a market has come a long way since its ideologically driven early days. It is now an established and ever commercialised market that meets the demand for a different travel experience for the more morally conscious traveller, while at the same time it provides opportunities for economic gain for the organisations that act as brokers of such experiences. This interaction raises several ethical issues in terms of serving a mission while making economic gains. In general, there is an acceptable relationship between monetary gain and altruistic service, within the context of enlightened self-interest provided that the beneficiary of economic gains diverts profits into serving their mission.”
Reading through this, the bolded words may give well-intentioned tourist volunteers a rude awakening. Volunteer trips to vulnerable communities paraded to be empowering are really just a cash cow for local tourism firms. There have been various papers and investigations exposing the commercial extortion of villages and slums where these humanitarian trips are conducted. There is a disturbing array of problems surrounding voluntourism, from child exploitation (Tomazos & Cooper 2011) to forced poverty level lifestyles (Mulheir, 2016). Essentially, the magnitude of harm this tourism causes overshadows the little benefit it brings to the people we are trying to help. This opinion blog attempts to explore a few of those angles and give insight towards the values or intentions behind our efforts at Project Blue Drop.
Self-reliance: foreign volunteers coming from influential positions of society into communities that are struggling to erase the basic lack of food and water security are complex. Building a well in a small Indian village within a voluntarist’s two-week stay may be life-changing for them, however, it can be intrusive and insensitive to those they are wanting to help. Most communities where such building projects happen to have strong and willing local laborers available who would benefit not only financially but also develop greater independence and self-respect. These communities are ready to fix their problems, those that want to create change can help mobilize these locals with access to tools and training rather than practicing saviorism.
Self-image: a vulnerable community with a fragile self-image is disproportionately affected by foreign volunteers who showcase their plight and living conditions in well-intentioned hopes of garnering attention to the issue. Statistically, such ‘poverty porn’ (with some caveats) elicits charity, not activism. It goes to say that charity is indeed important but true change needs to be supplemented with a heavy dose of activism. However, posing with locals for a social media post, can not only draw a sense of shame and vulnerability within them but also unintentionally make them props for capturing the volunteer’s trip. Project Blue Drop realizes the negative long term psychological impact voluntourism has on people. We will try our best to raise awareness in a manner that does not harm the wellbeing of the people we’re trying to support.
Unskilled efforts: a big issue regarding volunteer tourism lies in the lack of experience that these tourists bring when trying to change the world, and this leads to unintentional harm. From re-teaching already well-versed skills to children in remote villages to assisting medical doctors with tasks only fit for an actual registered professional, there is a disturbing grey area of how much knowledge is truly required to help. Volunteering tourism firms that focus solely on profits often turn a blind eye to many essential checkpoints that foreign candidates should pass. Not only does this threaten the wellbeing of those most vulnerable, but such businesses also profit off of that very provision. That being said, organizations such as Doctors without Borders actively work to better the communities they impact with professionally certified volunteers.
Detached attachment: trips that include child and youth-related volunteering can be especially harmful. Many foreigners come in with compassion and love that these kids bask in. However, once the trip ends, these kids are left devastated by the loss of that emotional connection which can lead to permanent abandonment issues. This is especially true for overseas orphanages that focus on voluntourism where especially vulnerable children are repeatedly exposed to such strong and abrupt emotional ties. Project Blue Drop recognizes that local long-term volunteers and family-oriented programs are the true humanitarian approach in helping vulnerable youth and children.
Poverty tourism exploitation: Recently infamous tours through the slums in Dharavi and Rio, to name a few, have caught headlines. At first appearing beneficial in learning about these communities and squashing stereotypes regarding such marginalized areas, these tours are actually quite problematic. Not only are these tours exploitive and unethical, but they also do not create any change in the life of locals within these slums. Not even a fraction of the money really makes it into the hands of those we are trying to help. Rather, they are often threatened to keep the conditions as dire as possible to allow tourists the chance to be thankful for their own lifestyles. As a result, they mistakenly think flashing cameras and snapshots capturing people's helplessness is helping when really, it can be quite degrading. While we do agree that not all tours allow for such exploits, there are far more that propagate these practices and should in no way be popularized as a humanitarian motif.
To those of us who wonder after reading this opinion blog, “well then, how am I supposed to help?” : Here is a rough list of ethical and truly humanitarian ways of making a difference to get you started.
Fundraising for a grassroots: Project Blue Drop has promised that we will only work with local grassroots organizations that are creating change. We believe that empowering a community through equipment and training is priceless and encourages the feeling of accomplishment and self-reliance within them. We have started initiatives of auctioning art pieces made by passionate advocates and using that money to fund local non-profits with fully transparent community projects, primarily relating to water security.
Learning and advocating: choosing an issue you are most passionate about is the best way of making change. Learning and listening to the people most affected by those problems can ensure their experiences stay within your heart while advocating for change. Not only are you able to use your privilege to become an ally for the change these communities are demanding, but you are also empowering them with a voice in your global community that they didn’t have previously.
Expectations: one of the best ways to make sure your actions have a positive impact on the community you want to serve is by taking a step back and asking yourself why you want to help. For instance, adding to resumes and peer validation might be reasonable reasons one is motivated to volunteer, however, there needs to be a stronger urge of service mentality and advocacy to make actual change. Going in to help purely to help without expectations of anything in return is a true sentiment of humanitarian help in global communities.
Independence of conflicting interests: an important aspect of choosing an organization to volunteer or fundraise for is ensuring that they do not propagate self-serving business tactics. Good questions we can ask ourselves include:
◦ What is the motive behind this organization’s efforts?
◦ To what extent does this organization provide transparency and
accountability in regards to its donations and work?
◦ Are there any real examples of their work and its benefits for the
communities they serve?
We have the responsibility of checking that the causes we are so passionate about are ethically and humanely carried out. It is on us to discern institutions that violate this promise and support ones that do great work.
Finally yet importantly: acknowledging and accepting that we do not know what is best for the communities we wish to help. Listening to what the locals are saying, what they are short on, and how we can help in the most unobtrusive way possible, ensuring their sovereignty and self-advocacy is paramount.
From Project Blue Drop, we wish you success in your volunteering endeavors and hope that you will support us in our efforts of creating change through supporting grassroots nonprofits in an ethical, transparent, and humanitarian way.
Mulheir, G. (2016, August 22). Voluntourism Harms, Not Helps, The World’s Orphanage Children. Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/-voluntourism-harms-not-h_b_11653292
Nisbett, M. (2017). Empowering the empowered? Slum tourism and the depoliticization of poverty. Geoforum, 85, 37-45, Retrieved from, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2017.07.007.
Tomazos, K., & Cooper, W. (2011). Volunteer tourism: at the crossroads of commercialisation and service? Current Issues in Tourism, 15(5), 405-423. DOI:10.1080/13683500.2011.605112