The Cost of Voluntourism

By Monique Hurley | 29 May 14

By Monique Hurley

This article is part of our May issue, Human Rights and Money.

In 2011, British cross-party think-tank, Demos, published a report warning that young Britons volunteering overseas could be playing a role in perpetuating negative stereotypes of Western “colonialism”.  This issue has recently been put in the spotlight in Australia, with an ABC Radio National Encounter report, and accompanying article, exploring the ethical and religious motivations of young Australians volunteering overseas in developing countries.

Opportunities for Australians to volunteer overseas abound. A myriad of companies specialise in organising “gap year” or “career break” volunteer experiences where young people have the opportunity to help save the Giant Panda in China, preserve turtle populations in Costa Rica or care for endangered elephants in Sri Lanka (without any conservation, marine biology or zoology experience).  Or, if that doesn’t take your fancy, you have the chance to build houses in Guatemala or Thailand, and can be involved in every aspect of the building process, from digging the foundations to pouring the cement to laying the bricks (without any previous construction or building knowledge).

You pay to undertake this type of volunteering and there is no requirement to learn the local language.  Local language classes are often offered to volunteers as an “additional extra” which is often taught concurrently while volunteering.

The ABC report observed that this type of volunteering opportunity is commonly seen as a way for young Australians to build their resume while travelling abroad.  Two concerns with this approach to volunteering include:

  1. The questionable benefit of unskilled and inexperienced people volunteering in roles overseas which require some kind of qualification if being performed at home in Australia; and
  1. The stop-gap solution that short-term volunteering, centred on the volunteer’s experience rather than their contribution to development, provides.

It was outside the scope of the Demos report to explore the impact of international volunteering on communities abroad.  The author of the report did, however, conduct a survey which asked respondents about their views on the impact of their volunteer work.  The report outlines that, while the majority of respondents felt that their work had a positive impact, a significant number of respondents expressed concern about the impact of their volunteering on communities.

PALMS Australia, an aid and development agency that sends skilled volunteers to partner communities around the world for two year periods, publishes a blog providing “rules for volunteering overseas”.  The blog cautions against short-term volunteer programs which promote notions of the “white saviour”.  The blog points out that it is not beneficial for inexperienced people to undertake specialist activities, such as building houses, in developing countries.  This is because, if such skills can be learnt by visitors in a couple of days, it would be much more beneficial for those skills to be taught to locals, who would then have an opportunity to gain employment from the use of such skills and contribute to developing and stimulating local economic markets.

Australian Government sponsored volunteering programs, such as the Australian Volunteers for International Development and the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development, address the aforementioned concerns by requiring participants to volunteer within their skill set and commit to a significant period of time overseas.  The former website notes that the optimum length of assignments is 24 months, while the latter stipulates that, as the goals of volunteering abroad are sustainable development, skills transfer and capacity building, the (often 12 month) duration of assignments is designed to ensure that volunteers can achieve these aims.

If considering taking a “gap year” or “career break” and volunteering overseas, it is worth contemplating whether you are viewing the experience as an opportunity for personal development or as an opportunity for you to use your skills to contribute to sustainable development.  If you fall into the former category, it may be worth re-evaluating your decision to volunteer overseas, or perhaps consider waiting until you have developed a skill set sought after in the developing world and can give a significant amount of your time to contribute to sustainable development in a meaningful way.

If you, nonetheless, decide to pay a company to facilitate your overseas volunteering experience, research the company that you choose to use, find out how your money will be spent and ask how your two week stint “saving the Brown Spotted Owl” fits into a broader sustainable development plan.

Monique Hurley is a Melbourne lawyer.  She has volunteered with the Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic and interned with Justice Connect and the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.  She also recently leant a helping hand at the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival.