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Reflections on Voluntourism.

The newly-named but long-existent voluntourism industry is rife with potential problems. People project their culture's values on cultures they view as "lesser." People start initiatives that matter to them, without listening to what matters to the community. Even when a project is responsive to community voice and values, it is often not sustainable. The privileged among us like to view ourselves as white knights who can swoop in and make everything better, when often we are really just bulls in china shops: wreaking havoc, interrupting functional systems, creating dependencies, and leaving things worse off than when we got there.

So if we tourists want to find some useful ways to fill our time, how do we go about doing it conscientiously?

As a teacher volunteering at a clinic in Bolivia, I've had the chance to think about this in a new way. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I've been considering some guidelines that I hope to keep in mind as I seek out opportunities for voluntourism in the future...

1. Accept that you are taking more than you're contributing. Then find a way to use your experience to make a sustainable difference somewhere.

I am only at the clinic for four weeks. Is it really realistic that I can make a difference here in that time? Probably not. So how can I use this experience to make a difference somehow somewhere? For me, the answer is in my own learning. In this position, I have the opportunity to learn about diabetes. To improve my Spanish. To learn culturally-sensitive plant-based recipes. To experience life in a clinic for the first time. To learn about challenges to health about which I was totally ignorant before. All of these things will make me a better biology and public health teacher when I return to San Francisco. I've been teaching for eleven years, and I have no plans to stop. That is sustainable. It's ok to admit that I'm not making much of a difference in my capacity as a clinic volunteer. I've made my peace with that, as long as I try to get what I can out of this experience to do some good somewhere, and as long as I'm not doing more harm than good while I'm here.

2. The longer you can stay, the better.

As voluntourists, we are the exact opposites of experts in the community and its needs. The longer we stay, the more of an edge we take off of our ignorance. We can actually see some projects through to completion. We can start to build trusting relationships, and through them, learn the real needs and desires of the community members. Assuming, of course, that we...

3. Listen more than we speak.

I repeat, we are not the experts. The community members are the experts. Listen to them. Ask open-ended questions, pay attention to nonverbal cues, build trust, read the research, conduct your own research if necessary. The last thing any community needs is another outsider coming in thinking she knows best. Hopefully you do have something to offer, but make sure to offer it in response to true community need, not in response to your own sense of self importance.

4. If you are trained in a useful skill, use it.

The doctors and nurses at the clinic offer such a practical skill that they could probably come for only a week or two and still do some good. It's been harder for me to find my place in response to true community need. But I do have training and experience in biology and health education, so I at least try to focus my efforts in that field. I've been teaching healthy eating to diabetes patients. I've been helping teach parasite prevention at local schools. I've been designing lesson plans and then training local health promoters so they can teach them to their communities. I really hope these are useful things. To be honest, I'm not sure if they are. But at least I know that I've tried my best to offer the skills I have. On the other hand, it's also important to...

5. Be a team player.

Maybe you are a highly skilled professional, but right now your area of expertise doesn't really meet the organization's needs. Don't be so consumed by the idea of offering your skills that you fail to respond to actual needs. Sometimes the dishes need to be washed, and you are the one with time to do it. So do it.

6. Pay money.

It bears repeating: the locals who operate this program year after year are the lifeblood of the program. You are just passing through. If you pass though and consume their precious resources while offering questionably useful skills, you are quite possibly doing more harm than good. If a program asks for money to cover your room and board, and maybe even to support their operations, pay it. At the end of the day, this might be the only truly useful thing you did.

7. Be careful with the kids.

Many of us want to volunteer with kids. They are so darn cute, and kids in challenging situations pull on our heartstrings like none other. But if they are already facing challenges, and then repeatedly build short term bonds with voluntourists who repeatedly abandon them, are we really helping? Again, the locals who work with these kids long-term are the ones who are really making a difference. The more we can do to support those relationships, the better. Sometimes that means walking away from an adorable kid who really wants to play with you, and it's so hard, I get it! But in the long run it might be better for you to offer to leave to do the grocery shopping so the local staff is free for the hands-on work. Remember that you want what's really best for that kid more than you want to feel good yourself.

8. Choose your affiliation carefully.

Possibly the single most important choice you will make is the choice of which organization with which to volunteer. Make sure you do your homework. Choose one that is sustainably operated by community members, in response to the true needs of the community, and is responding in appropriate and sustainable ways. Choose one whose needs overlap with your skills and training. Choose one that is honest with you about how they can (and can't) use you, so you know they are driven by the needs of the community, not the fragile egos of the volunteers. That way, even if you end up making photocopies all day, at least you know some good will come of it.

I hope to do some more voluntourism on this trip, and plan to keep these values in mind each time. But I'd love more food for thought. What do you think? What do you look for in a volunteer position, and how do you make sure you're doing more good than harm? Please share your feedback in the comments section below!


  1. Really great reflections and important points! Love this.

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