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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Voluntourism: Doing It Right Is Not As Simple As It Sounds

Strive's Peru service project includes donating school supplies and books. (Strive)

Strive’s Peru service project includes donating school supplies and books. (Strive)

During this season of giving, Here & Now considers a new and growing industry — one that is generating up to $175 billion a year. It’s called “voluntourism,” and it combines travel with volunteer opportunities that range from spending a few hours painting a wall to months-long trips creating infrastructure in developing countries.

The positives are obvious: participants volunteer time and labor for projects they consider worthwhile, while learning about the cultures and needs of those who live in the region. For many it leads to lifelong involvement in charity and development.

But critics say that in the wrong hands, it can turn out differently. For some tour operators, profit takes precedence over planning and projects are little more than busy work. In other cases, volunteers may be ill-trained for the tasks they’re assigned. And in the worst of all scenarios, the trips exploit and endanger the very people they are designed to help.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with two international charity organizations: Tyler Andrews, co-owner and director of Strive Trips for student athletes, and Leila de Bruyne, founder and operations manager of Flying Kites.

Have you ever volunteered abroad? Tell us on Facebook or in the comments.

Interview Highlights

Tyler on creating a program with long-term impact

“We very much try to think of it in a long-term sense. So we say: What can we gain from these relationships that we have from people, and what can they tell us about what they want and what they need? And then we put together a plan of, you know, three, five, ten years looking down the road. And so each volunteer that comes down for us is a stepping stone towards that ultimate longer-term goal.”

Leila on volunteering with the future in mind

“I encourage people to travel and see the need, but I encourage them to also consider what is the ‘then what.’ You know, what is their plan afterwards. Is it just for two weeks in the summer for you to have a great experience and an awesome Facebook album? Or is this some sort of personal path, where you’re going to help have a more transformative impact on the communities?”

Tyler on what to ask a volunteer organization

“The most important question to ask is: What is the relationship that this organization has with the community that they’re working in? And is this kind of an in-and-out, a quick thing that happens maybe once a year for a couple of weeks, or is this something where you have a long-term developmental plan? So if I’m a volunteer, that’s what I want to know. I want to know, how is my volunteering going to impact this community in the long term as a result of the work that I do.”

Leila on how to assess a volunteer organization

“Ask yourself what it is that you’re going to be doing day to day. And red flags should come up if your sixteen-year-old high school kid is going to be involved in sensitive social work, or acting in a clinic as a nurse, or, you know, in my opinion — and this might be pretty extreme — taking over a whole classroom. I think that you should be working to support a staff that exists. And if you’re not, and you’re taking on a different role, then to me that would be alarming and not something that I would want to participate in.”


  • Tyler Andrews, co-owner and director of Strive Trips, which runs service trips to Kenya and Peru for student athletes. Strive tweets @STRIVEtrips.
  • Leila de Bruyne, founder and operations manager of Flying Kites in Kenya. Flying Kites tweets @fkglobal.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • stubocheck

    When Jehovah’s Witnesses go into an area to volunteer for building programs, I am proud to say, they try to teach building skills to local witnesses as well as trying to source materials locally. Efforts help locals continue later on their own. check out ‘newsroom’ and ‘about us’ tabs on http://www.jw.org .

  • David Clemmons

    Glad to see @HereandNow discuss this topic, particularly with the new generation of voluntourism outfitters who are coming into the space. The more numerous and broader the perspectives the more likely it is that this market will improve itself in the months and years ahead.

    Clearly, there are many more questions than answers at present, and natural disasters make it more difficult to navigate the ethical conundrums which are arising as a result of more and more individuals wanting to travel the globe and assist in whatever way possible. Add concerns about the capacity of governments to deliver socio-economic assistance to communities in need – due to corruption, lack of resources, what have you – and one can understand why even a 16- or 17-year old would have thoughts that s/he could make a difference, however small.

    Granted, Ms. de Bruyne raises some good points regarding individuals’ motivations for participating, but perhaps we are in need of new systems to harness this energy and afford it an opportunity to build on existing efforts & investments of time, talent, and treasure. As it is, we seem to find it especially compelling to offer our judgments of others who participate as voluntourists from a position of hindsight – generated from our own realizations of what appear to be post-experience disappointments in ourselves, rooted in perceived transgressions emanating from our own uninformed ignorance. Rather than discourage others from participating, could we not place the same energy into discovering new approaches, developing new systems that could transform even uninformed ignorance into positive, developmental change for host communities and participants alike?

    The energy is available – billions and billions of dollars, and millions and millions of individuals moving about the planet. Crafting globalized systems to guide, leverage, and invest these resources in new, creative, and far better ways seems like a worthy task to embrace. Media outlets like WBUR have the platforms from which to begin conversations of this nature. Have we not collectively reached a point, looking at the movements of money and people associated with voluntourism, to start such discussions Here AND Now?

  • supergreennina

    I would like to hear opinions on how this degrades the local economy. Specifically, we are sending individuals into an area who are paying to work. This is impossible for local residents to compete with as they need work that pays them. It appears that it would only help if tourists also paid the salary of a local individual who was doing the job they were doing along side.

    This article only touched on whether or not tourists were qualified for the position while I am interested in how it affects local communities economically.

  • Colin Stover

    What you are talking is what Christian churches and organizations have done for many years; they are called “mission trips” and may be local or to a foreign country. Vetting for these trips is done by the local church or para-church organization and descriptions of what one will be doing are provided by the mission site. It isn’t perfect but in 30 years of ministry I have seen more successes than trouble. It is good that people want to volunteer. May I suggest that, if you don’t want to go on a “mission trip,” at least learn from those who have been doing similar work for plenty of years.

  • angietillges

    Great piece. Your guests sum up much of what I see in Chicago’s local volunteer and community work. It is a good reminder to gut check, own why you are doing the work–is it for you or for those you are serving?

  • volunteacher

    It might have given some weight to your guests’ arguments if you had interviewed people from the countries/communities being helped. They may be better placed to determine whether and how “voluntourists” help disadvantaged communities. As for the volunteers – it’s obviously a good idea to make sure you’ll be doing work you find meaningful or at least interesting and that the organization is legitimate enough to suit you (and a great idea to make sure your work won’t be holding job/economic growth in the community as others have mentioned), but I think that post-trip introspection is more valuable than pre-trip. So what if you just think it’s going to be a cool experience and photo op? Does that make your help any less valuable? And does it prevent you from growing after the program? Of course not. That’s one of the potentially great things about these volunteer experiences – they can be tranformative experiences whatever your original motives and whatever the quality of the organization.

  • Haley

    I think it is terrific that both groups are not just criticizing the risks of volunteering but also building programs to negate them!

  • No Body

    “unless you’re a surgeon or a billionaire, you’re not going to have a meaningful, transformative impact on the communities that you’re working with. ”

    What an elitist and facile statement, although De Bruyne should know given that she is a trust fund kiddy herself. Tough luck all you engineers working on sustainability problems, nurse midwives helping to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates that boggle the mind, De Bruyne has deemed your work vastly inferior to billionaires and surgeons! Tell me De Bruyne, what the heck is a surgeon trained in the first world going to offer to someone in the third world? They are trained on the latest equipment, procedures and automation, they generally cannot and will not operate without those conditions!

    Additionally, while she readily admits that her initial volunteerism was really all about her, she then goes on to project that all volunteers must be like her and only in it “for themselves”. De Bruyne, you are an infantile, elitist and petulant fool. Only someone who inherited gob-fulls of money could be as insincere and clueless as yourself. NPR, why you would think that this idiot has anything insightful to say is beyond me.

  • Emily4HL

    Church groups in my area go on mission trips to paint an orphanage or do construction work on a school. While this type of service is helpful and doesn’t require many particular skills or background, why not pay the community members you intend to help to do this work? And provide the cost of your airfare to help the community? Especially if you’re going for 2 weeks with no particular skills.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with traveling to open your eyes, so long as you know what you’re doing. Exposure to the reality of the world is helpful.

    But to really make an economic or lasting difference, I think you’d serve better to not go and spend the money you would spend on the trip to really help.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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