Voluntourism: Traveling to make a difference

Aissa Boodhoo-Leegsma
March 8, 2013
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

Traveling to Make A Difference: How you can find voluntourism or meaningful global work opportunities


The term voluntourism has sprung up in the past few years to explain the increasing number of people seeking vacations with volunteering components. For students, this has been especially appealing in order to fit travel and work together within the confines of Reading Week, winter or summer break.

But what are the implications of voluntourism? And are you really making a difference?

Some important distinctions should be made when you’re searching for an international volunteer or work experience. Organizations that tout “making a difference” and “helping others” as main selling points in a two-week, $3000 trip, are selling you false hope.

For these corporate endeavours, only small portions of your time are spent volunteering, while large portions of your trip are spent whitewater rafting or snorkeling and sightseeing. While these are great, is there any point in volunteering so minimally? How much of a culture, a country or a community will you really get to know?

My goal here isn’t to simply denigrate the act of travelling and volunteering. Enough articles have been written to criticize voluntourism as an extension of neo-colonialism and its presentation of the benevolent West.

Instead, as students interested in travel and becoming a global citizen, we should be engaging in critical evaluation and reflection about global volunteering opportunities.

A couple key things to look at when thinking about voluntourism are the three R’s: reputation, reciprocity and resilience.

Does the organization you’re looking at have a reputation as being socially responsible? There are handfuls of online setups which appear to have popped up over night and have very few positive testimonials or long-term connection to the communities they send students too.

Some reputable providers of global work or volunteer opportunities at McMaster are AIESEC, Engineers Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, MacServe and Student International Health Initiative (SIHI).

Outside of Mac, but still equally popular with students, are opportunities with Canada World Youth, Parks Canada, World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), Outward Bound, Rotary Club and the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme.

Once you’ve narrowed things down a bit, found an organization that has good relationships with its host communities and has a timeline that works for you, it’s time to evaluate the reciprocity of the opportunity.

Does the organization just drop into the community then leave? Is there local and/or grassroots involvement that is integral in project planning? Or is this simply a venture pre-formulated in the West and meant to be a “band-aid” solution?

Xochil Argueta-Warden, a Mac student who went on exchange with Canada World Youth, first in Newfoundland, then a three-month exchange in Ghana, noted how, “ it’s important to remember when volunteering that you are visiting and that you must help in a way that works for the community.”

“People have to be careful not to go into a new place with a big agenda that may make members of the community feel disconnected from their own home.”

Similarly, students should be open to not just giving their time and helping out, but learning from the culture and community they are emerged in.

Alexandra Steinberg, a Mac student who volunteered with SIHI in India recollected how much she learned while on her trip.

“We had open discussions with individuals from diverse professional, demographic, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. They taught me many unforeseen benefits to their methods of education, and their less high-paced and consumption focused lifestyles.”

When you’re finalizing your volunteering plans, remember to truly assess the rippling effect of your work in another country. Resilience is meant to describe the sustainability of the project you take part in.

If you’ve provided schools with supplies, how will they receive these supplies after you leave? If you have worked on an eco-project, will the project continue to run and grow after you leave?

Jasleen Grewal, a Mac student who went on an internship with AIESEC McMaster to Brazil, shared how her project team, made up of AIESEC members from around the world, facilitated sessions on racism and cultural diversity.

“Our goal was not just to teach…but to instill confidence in the students and give them a sense of global citizenship. These skills and ideas resonated with them long after the workshops were over.”

While it’s important to be critical of what volunteering venture you are part of, there is certainly room to both engage in community learning and live a global experience. So go forth, learn, travel and be engaged in both the moment and the issue.


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