Volunteering Abroad: Recognizing Risks and Moving Forward

In the summer before I came to Queen’s, I travelled to rural Kenya for two weeks to help build a school while learning about Maasai culture and local development issues. I spent months fundraising and preparing, and participated in a mandatory pre-departure course through my high school. When I returned, everyone congratulated me on what I had done – travelling literally half way across the globe to help the poor and needy is no small feat, after all.  I was proud and ready to share all that I had learned.
Then I came to university, and I began to look at development issues more in depth. One day in second year it came up, a term I’d never encountered before: voluntourism. I suddenly wasn’t so proud to tell people about my trip. Instead I felt a bit embarrassed, almost ashamed to admit that I in fact had been a voluntourist. These discussions of voluntourism were not confined to the classroom, either, but arose in casual conversations with friends and peers. It was as if everyone had read the same news article and came to the new conclusion: volunteering abroad is bad. 
The rise in popularity of international volunteer trips has been accompanied by increased criticisms, especially in the past decade. Many authors present very valid concerns about the practice: development and culture are simplified as they are marketed in static, subordinate, and exoticized terms; issues are naturalized and distanced, with problems such as poverty presented in terms of “us” versus “them”; volunteers benefit more, taking away local jobs while padding their own résumés in the process.  These are all serious risks associated with volunteer tourism, and certainly demand attention. 
However, in focusing on these risks the benefits of volunteer trips are often ignored. It would be ignorant to assert that all volunteer tourists are self-centred, completely uneducated, and only interested in furthering personal goals at the expense of host communities. In truth, volunteer tourism also offers a significant opportunity to deconstruct and challenge preconceived ideas of development, and foster greater cultural appreciation and global solidarity. Volunteers have the chance to humanize development issues, while cross-cultural interaction encourages mutual learning among volunteers and locals. 
So, is volunteer tourism good or bad? The numerous advantages and disadvantages certainly seem to complicate things. But maybe the answer isn’t as simple as good or bad. The risks cannot be denied, but do they really discredit the practice as a whole? After all, just because something is risky, does that mean it should be abandoned? Or should it be adapted, encouraged to evolve into a better version of itself? While volunteer tourism has been criticized for simplifying and distancing issues, my trip to Kenya was also a key factor in my decision to study Global Development, which has led me to critically reflect and challenge mainstream views of development. When it comes to volunteer tourism, I believe that an evolution is not only necessary but desirable (and I share this belief with most academics writing on the topic). By approaching volunteer tourism with the purpose of being self-reflexive, by actively seeking to breakdown uncritical views of development, and by constantly reassessing the impacts of volunteer trips, the practice offers great opportunity to dismantle stereotypes in favour of a deeper understanding of and continual learning about development issues and unfamiliar cultures. 

-Zoe Share