Questions from Nepal: Debating the Merits of Voluntourism

On April 25th, a devastating earthquake hit Kathmandu, Nepal, killing over 4,000 people. As many around the world respond to the immediate aftermath, others look toward the future: how will Nepal rebuild? Financial aid is obviously needed; India is leading a massive aid effort along with other countries, while the US has already pledged $10 million. But the country will also need physical support. Who should provide it?

In the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, the country was flooded with untrained volunteers working with various NGOs. But while their hearts were in the right place, many of these good Samaritans did more harm than good. As Claire Bennett notes:

Ragtag brigades of well-intentioned do-gooders flooded the country…all clambering over one another looking for a way to make their mark and do good, but lacking either the skills or coordination to have an impact…. There were even reports of teams of doctors who arrived to help but were unable to feed themselves. This wave of unsolicited and poorly planned shipments of untrained people and donated goods was dubbed by some humanitarians “the second disaster." 

With this in mind, many are urging those looking to support Nepal not to fly to Kathmandu and repeat the mistakes of Haiti. Nepal does not need waves of untrained aid workers taking jobs from locals who desperately need them and further clogging the “one international airport for the entire country, which has itself sustained damage.” While there are definitely valid arguments against the efficiency of only sending financial support in the long term, it may be the most needed and effective form of aid in the short term.

But this issue gets at a larger debate about the merits of “voluntourism,” the growing trend of traveling to volunteer abroad, rather than simply being a tourist or volunteering at home. While it shows the growing compassion of many in the first world, others question who really benefits from these trips. Do locals benefit from untrained workers who leave as quickly as they appear? Do students benefit by getting an extra bullet point for their resumes? Do other participants get the satisfaction of thinking they’ve done good without really doing anything? Or is it really the various NGOs and other organizations that profit financially by facilitating these excursions? After all, the industry is thought to generate around $2 billion every year.

Among those who feel voluntourism has negative consequences are the minds behind the “End Humanitarian Douchery campaign,” which seeks to “crack down on irresponsible voluntourism by spreading the word about what separates a good placement from a bad placement,” while also encouraging debate via social media using #endhumanitariandouchery. Overall, it prompts many young potential volunteers to really research the organization they are working with and question what impact their trip would have; the campaign suggests that a "good way of thinking about this is asking yourself: am I qualified to perform these tasks at home? If not, then you probably should not be doing them abroad.” 

And yet there are those that would argue voluntourism shouldn’t be demonized. Isn’t some service better than none? Isn’t exposure to different cultures and living standards important for those privileged enough to be born in the West?  

Arguably, both these things are true. But the more critical issue is the long-term impact that these interactions have on the communities being helped. While I won’t doubt the motives of “voluntourists,” I do doubt the merits of this industry as a mode of sustainable development. I’d like to think that there are other ways to actively support a place – especially in this era of globalization and technology – that don’t involve a plane ride.


My thoughts and prayers go out to all affected by this tragic disaster. If you would like to donate to the relief effort, here is a list of various organizations, as well as some tips for making sure your donation is really effective.

Comments

Julia Kulinski

Thank you for posting your thoughts on voluntourism.

We aren't sending anyone into Nepal at the moment simply because we don't want to get in the way of the organised aid efforts. However I believe both efforts from the large disaster relief aid agencies and volunteers are relevant but at different times. At the moment it is important to get the aid efforts co-ordinated so that the relief gets to the people who need it most. Untrained volunteers are not going to be particularly useful at this present time.

When things start to improve volunteers will be able to add value by not only contributing to the micro economy but also working with projects that improve education. We believe that volunteers shouldn't take the work that local people can do, however I believe there is a valid place for volunteers if they are sharing language skills.

Julia
www.volunteersintheworld.co.uk

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the official policy of Citizens for Global Solutions.

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