Audrey Hepburn’s films and her remarkable work for UNICEF made her my number one idol throughout adolescence. As an avid lover of traveling and a natural born empath, my desire to visit foreign countries with an interest in aiding humanity came naturally. I grew up watching all the heartbreaking commercials with images of poverty and hunger- stricken children fighting for their lives, “but with a small donation, problems could be instantly resolved.” No one was safe from the guilt-inducing effects of these advertisements which claimed quick-fix solutions to “Third World” problems.

A similar concept was introduced to me during college, called voluntourism. Voluntourism is the act of volunteering while visiting a foreign country. The idea sprang about back in the 1970s with study abroad programs but was even more widely spread in the 1990s. The introduction came from two young recruiters in a massive lecture hall, who jumped on a table in front of nearly 500 students displaying their enthusiasm for the program. They touted, elephant rides, swimming with the dolphins, experiencing a world of new culture, and working closely with impoverished communities.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by the idea of traveling to a new place and doing good for others. After class, I picked up a flyer and was surprised to discover that in order to volunteer, you must pay a fee in addition to fronting the cost of a plane ticket. Unsure whether I could even afford to volunteer, I decided to study abroad instead.

Although it wasn’t the right timing then, I still have an interest in one day volunteering outside of the United States. When I took my first Introduction to Global and International Studies course I found out just how much controversy surrounds this topic. My professor discussed the potential harm caused by the voluntourism industry from which I gained a new perspective on the topic.

In some situations, volunteers are only visiting the country for a week at a time. The work that is required is sometimes manual labor, such as building houses, schools, etc: Projects and skills in which the volunteers have little to no previous training. Critics of voluntourism say that positions are often taken from the locals workers in order to support the wealthy westerners traveling to the country.

Sometimes, those who work with orphans end up doing more harm to children’s mental health by leaving them feeling abandoned as the short trip quickly comes to an end. There have also been reports that some of the orphanages people volunteer at are made up of children who are kidnapped from their parents in order to keep these facilities active for Western voluntourism.

People believe voluntourism can sometimes be surface level and doesn’t force volunteers to look at the bigger causes of crisis in communities. The voluntourism industry has been seen as contributing to the notion that continents like Africa need saving by Westerners.

Fortunately, not all are naysayers of voluntourism. These supporters note that there is a large portion of the population that have a genuine interest in helping others and to be able to travel in the process. Who can blame them? Immersing oneself into a completely new culture can be perspective changing and stimulating. Not to mention some of these voluntourism programs end up being a huge economic support for some of these communities.

It’s understandable that there are conflicting views on this topic. So where’s the line when it comes to assisting these struggling communities? I think it’s wherever there are projects that are sustainable with lasting effects. Another question to ask is, how does this program’s impact outlast the individual trip?

Perhaps it’s as simple as taking a genuine interest in the country you’d like to help out. My own approach would be to thoroughly investigate some of the actual problems the communities are facing as well as background information on the voluntourism companies, then taking that information and deciding who will really be benefiting from your donation of time and money.

About the Author
Olivia Schmidt is a senior at the University of Kansas studying Journalism with a minor in Global and International Studies. She currently serves as the IRC’s Audio & Video Production Intern.