We Need to Talk About Voluntourism: A Commentary

A while back a friend sent me an article written in The Spinoff entitled “We need to talk about voluntourism“. ‘Voluntourism’ or volunteer tourism,
has been gaining popularity in recent years. Based upon the concept of ‘doing good’ while travelling, NGOs connect people with projects (usually) in so-called developing countries. This may include assisting with construction, conservation and environmental projects, teaching English and the oft sought after orphanage tourism. While it is often possible to help for long periods of time – months or years, tourists often dedicate part of their holiday to a project, say a few weeks.

The Spinoff article, along with others (see The Conversation and SAIH Norway (Youtube clip below)) highlight many issues with voluntourism:

  • Volunteers are often young and unqualified to do the tasks they are involved in;
  • Volunteers can have limited positive impacts due to short term placements and not speaking the local language;
  • Continuously revolving volunteers on short term placements can make it difficult for host organisations;
  • Volunteers can displace work jobs that could be done by locals; and
  • Experiences can be “superficial”, actually offering greater benefits for the volunteers rather than the local community. Instead of addressing the structural causes of poverty, inequality and other issues, they can contribute to maintaining poverty cycles and dependence upon outside assistance.

At the time I initially read The Spinoff article, I was working as a volunteer teacher for Burmese migrants in Ranong, Thailand, so it brought an interesting perspective to the work I was doing there. Through prior involvement with other NGOs and having previously studied aspects of international development and sustainable development, I was already aware of many of the issues raised in the article and I’d considered several of these potential problems prior to my departure to Ranong.

After spending 15 months being a volunteer teacher, (which I wouldn’t strictly call voluntourism) I would like to share some of my experiences which I relate to some of the afore mentioned problems.

Length of time matters – over time my relationships with students, staff and locals deepened, which helped me to better understand the complex social, economic and political context and also to appreciate some of the challenges that people were faced with. This process helped me to contribute more over time.

Attending cultural events was a great way to learn more about Thai culture

Fulfilling a niche need – English teaching is being done by amazing Burmese teachers in Ranong, of which English is usually their third or fourth language. However, native English speakers usually bring a higher level of English and also many different perspectives from around the world. I was recruited to fill a gap in the staff after a previous volunteer left.

Marist staff and volunteers visiting a Chinese temple during the vegetarian festival
(Photo courtesy of Marist Asia Foundation)

Lack of language and understanding of different cultures can be challenging – I arrived in Ranong with no Burmese or Thai language skills was difficult, but I slowly worked on this, learning essential Burmese words for the classroom and Thai language for daily life (market shopping, catching the bus, etc). I found that differences in cultural perspectives couldn’t be understood quickly and I continually learnt more about both Thai and Burmese cultural practices, viewpoints and traditions. Some approaches seemed almost the opposite to mine, which was rather confronting at times.

Sharing local food was a good way to connect with others: Mohinga – my favourite!

I have further thoughts on some of these topics which I’ll attempt to address in part 2 of this blog. Keep posted for further post-volunteering reflections!

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