Khan: There are perils to short-term volunteering
By Sabith Khan
While universities generally do a good job of designing short-term international educational programs, lately there has been a proliferation of private entities promoting short-term volunteering or “voluntourism” that can bring more harm than good.
These programs, usually one- to two-weeks long, resemble volunteer work but are designed with the tourist in mind and often lack any meaningful educational component. Supporters of voluntourism position it as an effective way to help others while getting to know them in a safe and reliable way in a short span of time.
While the notion of the developing world needing the help of Westerners has been prevalent for centuries, it has been challenged by recent scholarship. The classic view has been that experts and tourists can help the less fortunate during a short visit by virtue of their greater access to wealth and the greater technical expertise that they supposedly possess. This is a very skewed worldview that does not grant the locals autonomy or agency.
While it is certainly true that tourism can benefit developing countries, it is patently misleading to characterize this as contributing to long-term development such as what is achieved over a long period of time by dedicated professionals who are experts in their fields, whether it is education, health care or construction management.
Scholars including Colleen McGloin and Nichole Georgeou of Australia point out that the phenomenon of voluntourism reinforces the “hegemonic discourse of need,” meaning the dependence of developing world folk on developed world “voluntourists,” who may spend anywhere from a few days to a few months helping them. They differentiate voluntourism, or short-term visits, from development volunteering — long-term programs such as Peace Corps. The former is based primarily in market dynamics, with operators wanting to make money, while the latter is based in civil society, with tangible results in developing nations and learning outcomes for students that make a difference to their careers.
Voluntourism trivializes the phenomenon of development and makes it look easy, something that a voluntourist can accomplish during a week-long visit or even during a honeymoon. This focus on the short-term and simplification of a very complex process is problematic, particularly if the goal is to train young people to engage in international development. McGloin and Georgeou suggest that such short-term projects are not helpful for those who engage in them or for the communities on the receiving end, even if they benefit from the visits in the short term. The long-term damage, including disengagement and the trivializing of the problems of the communities, is too pervasive to be ignored for short-term gains.
A Western voluntourist going in with preconceived notions of what is good for the locals doesn’t take into account the local knowledge systems or history of a place, which may be multi-layered and complex. The voluntourist considers local knowledge as inferior and assumes that they need Western modes of thinking and behaving, argue McGloin and Georgeou.
So, while it might be good in the short term for a sophomore at a liberal arts college to add this kind of experience to her resume, it may not necessarily be good in the long term for the receiving country, or even for the student herself. A better approach is to plan a deliberate, conscious effort to educate students about the complexities of economic planning, development, poverty and technology transfer. Educators need to design longer-term programs similar to the Peace Corps, where there is full immersion and deep engagement with the local communities and their problems.
That is indeed a challenging task, and anyone engaged in international education must be prepared to invest the time and energy to tackle these issues.
A quick dash to meet locals, followed by sunbathing and partying on the beach and returning to one’s home country, doesn’t benefit anyone in a meaningful way. This sort of voluntourism is problematic and needs to be curbed.
• Sabith Khan is an assistant professor in the School of Management at California Lutheran University.