Does Ethical “Voluntourism” Exist?

A lot has been written lately that rightly criticize the practice  of  “voluntourism”. For examples of well thought out critiques of the practice, see here (NPR), here (Huffington Post), and my favorite, here (Jamie the Very Worst Missionary). I want to begin by saying that I agree with these articles, in most cases. However, I have seen this idea of incorporating service into travel, and travel into service, done in a way that is immune to many common criticisms of the practice. Furthermore, I am attempting my own version of that (kind of) next month, so I wanted to take this time to examine ways that this practice can be done ethically. selfies

To start, let’s discuss what voluntourism is, because it can take many forms. When I use the term, I refer to any period less than six months in which an individual from a western country travels to another country, usually in the developing world, to “serve” in some capacity. Think church mission trips or college students heading off on “medical brigades”.

The ethical issues are fairly evident, and if you are not familiar with the critique of these practices, please click on the links above. I have given some thought to ways that this could be done in an ethical way, to create the change in the “goer”, without being exploitive, narcissistic,  or culturally insensitive in the process. Here are a few thoughts….

  1. Do what you’re good at.
    This seems obvious, but I myself have been on construction mission trips, and I can barely tell a hammer from a screw driver. Everyone has God-given gifts and some of us have even built careers from these. If that is you, serve in that capacity in an underserved area. For example, if you are a medical assistant than you would be a valuable resource to a village that doesn’t receive adequate health education or care. But, NO ONE would want a twenty year old fraternity kid to provide medical care to their own children… why send them to Haiti to do that for someone else?
  2. Fund yourself… and the organizationhelping
    Fundraising is great. But, don’t use mission trips as an excuse to travel the world on your small group’s dime. If we’re being honest, short term volunteer trips are really more benefit to the goer (don’t think I am discounting the value of that benefit). Therefore, it would make sense for the goer to fund themselves. They can and should still fundraise for the host organization, though. In that way, they can be even more help by looping in donors that otherwise may not have given.
  3. Respect the people you meet
    When you visit an organization, take cues and actively participate. However, also realize that if a kid is attached to you, it’s not that healthy for you to only be there a short time. Help with logistical more than relational tasks. Also, do not be exploitive of the people or their stories after the fact. That African baby did not agree to be in your profile picture (so don’t post their picture) and someone at their worst probably doesn’t want you blogging about how sad their life is compared to yours (so don’t tell their story without permission).

I hope that doesn’t sound preachy. I am writing this to myself just as much, because I have done it wrong in the past as well, but I think it can be done right. Let me know if you have other ideas.

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