by Katie Palmer
In recent years, there has been a slight yet noticeable shift among many Western young adult travelers. Once adventurously backpacking across Northern Europe and other parts of the world, they now combine cheap travel to the Global South with short-term volunteer endeavors. Whether one is performing low-skill unpaid work at an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand for a couple of days, or providing high skill pro-bono legal aid at a law clinic in Nairobi, Kenya, today’s Generation Y is scheduling time to make a difference while on vacation abroad.
Of course, “voluntourism” predates my initial overseas volunteer experiences in 2008 at a rehabilitation center for girl survivors of sex trafficking. During that first trip, I became privy to just how popular yet complicated this trend is of young men and women from the Global North mixing travel, leisure, and volunteer initiatives together in the Global South.
There are myriad reasons why young men and women choose to volunteer abroad. Voluntourism provides excellent opportunities for young people—such as myself—to build our resumes, gain professional work experience, acquire a competitive edge in the labour market, find ourselves, and develop an appreciation of cultures other than our own.
Fruzsina Nagy, a Hungarian woman, was 26 years old when she volunteered at the Preda Center in the Philippines in 2007. Nagy explains why she decided to leave Hungary for six months: “In that time [before her departure to the Philippines], I was totally tired of my work and also of my private life. I needed time alone and far away from everybody. I searched the Internet for work abroad, but then I realized I wanted to volunteer and help others for free. So I started to look for possibilities and found an advertisement by a Hungarian foundation that was looking for seven young adults to go to four different countries. As one of the chosen four, I had the opportunity to volunteer in the Philippines.”
At its best, voluntourism is an engine for local economic development, enriched intra-cultural relations, and global citizenry.
Twenty-nine year old Bernadette Trinidad of Canada argues that taking time off work for six months to volunteer in the Philippines and Thailand was one of the best decisions she made, both professionally and personally: “I have definitely grown more appreciative of many things back home and I have learned to curb my consumption habits tremendously. Furthermore, I have decided to take these experiences back to the young people here in Toronto as a volunteer for Amnesty International and a high school teacher for the Toronto Catholic District School Board.”
The Canadian co-founders of Free the Children, Craig and Marc Kielburger, are a pair of international icons in the field of voluntourism-based international development. Since adolescence, the brothers have engaged in a series of international volunteer trips. Through Free the Children they co-lead—with the assistance of local staff in the hosting country—other youth on similar trips. They argue, “If [voluntourism] is done well, you could actually create local jobs—from cooks and tour guides, to drivers and security guards.”
Voluntourism is not without its fair share of criticism, however, and questions about the impact of voluntourism abound. Does helping out really make a difference? Does the growing trend of voluntourism take paid employment away from the local population? Do volunteers from the Global North create more problems for under-staffed non-profit organizations in the Global South?
Radchada Chomjunda, Executive Director of the Human Help Network Thailand, has been working with international volunteers for nearly two decades. She has witnessed her fair share of complications that arise between volunteers from the Global North and local staff. According to her, problems can arise if the volunteers are all from one country. “For many years, the majority of volunteers that were coming to help us in [Pattaya, Thailand] were from one Scandinavian country. Many were of the opinion that the ways things were done in their own country was right, and if it was not done their way, it was wrong.”
Chomjunda recommends that one way to alleviate this I-know-best attitude is for NGOs to recruit volunteers from a range of countries. That way, the volunteers recognize that their way of doing things is not necessarily practiced in all developed countries.
Father Shay Cullen, Director of the Preda Center in the Philippines, sheds light on how NGOs in less developed countries can manage international volunteers to help ensure that they do not create extra burdens for the staff. He insists, “There is no special status for volunteers. They will be doing the work alongside staff, just as if they are apprentices. They must accept their humble status as they have no experience, language skills, or cultural skills in this environment.”
What advice is available for future voluntourists? For starters, in their online column with The Globe and Mail, the Kielburgers advise potential voluntourists,“You should be adding needed extra hands to an existing project, such as raising a wall for a school or caring for children who would otherwise not receive much attention, rather than partaking in a make-work project or taking the place of paid local workers.”
Trinidad also shares her experiential advice. “Maintain an open mind and realize that life in the Global South will indeed be different from that in the Global North. One is not necessarily better than the other, but both are equally valuable in offering a rounded perspective of how life is lived. There is much to be learned from the Global South, just as we have a great deal to offer as citizens of the Global North.”
My own advice, based on four years of international volunteer and work experience, is to embrace local differences and adopt the mindset that Western ideas and standards are not necessarily global ones.
And above all else, remember the timeless wisdom of Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Katie Palmer was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. She recently earned a graduate degree in Geography from the University of Toronto. She earned her bachelor’s degree in geography and gender studies also from the University of Toronto. In her spare time, she volunteered at ECPAT-Philippines – an anti-trafficking NGO that provides rehabilitation and residential services to girl survivors of trafficking and forced prostitution.