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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Who gains the most from voluntourism?

    Christina Jelly columnist
    Christina Jelly

    The UA sends record numbers of students to study abroad every year. Increasingly, international exchange is viewed as a vital component to the enrichment of our academic career. Not only does study abroad add dimension to our academic studies, but international travel broadens cultural perspectives and imparts invaluable lessons about the complexity and variety of our world.

    The growth of study abroad and student exchange programs is illustrative of a broader phenomenon – not only are students venturing out of the country to study, but they are also traveling to developing countries to build schools for the poor, preserve threatened wildlife habitats and volunteer with AIDS patients.

    And students are not alone. According to the Travel Industry Association of America, more than 55 million Americans have participated in so-called volunteer vacations – vacations including a jaunt in charitable activities abroad – and some 100 million Americans are contemplating similar trips.

    The American commitment to volunteerism fused with our intrepid thirst for travel has created a burgeoning industry of volunteer-abroad service providers. This new brand of volunteer service differs from organizations like the Peace Corps in that it often thrusts untrained individuals into projects in developing countries for a much shorter time period.

    Whether volunteers serve for two weeks or two years, they arguably provide a developing community with economic and social benefits, all free of

    The American commitment to volunteerism fused with our intrepid thirst for travel has created a burgeoning industry of volunteer-abroad service providers.

    charge and largely motivated by good will. Check out any of the glossy brochures distributed by the volunteer travel industry and you’ll find a diverse range of virtuous projects: community development, conservation, health improvement, teaching, etc.

    Yet, volunteer tourists are often equally motivated by the opportunity to travel and feel the personal rewards of philanthropy. Personal satisfaction may be an indivisible element of altruistic acts, but how much are these short-term voluntourism projects aimed at satisfying the personal impulses of the volunteer rather than the needs of the project and the target community?

    Many voluntourism providers are for-profit agencies, and as such their priority is to satisfy the consumer. Volunteer service providers like I-to-I and Cross-Cultural Solutions spend hefty sums developing projects that guarantee the volunteer moral satisfaction. Accordingly, they charge high prices for their services – a two-week teaching stint in Ghana can cost up to $1,495. That fee doesn’t even include the thousands of dollars you’ll need to pay for inoculations, flights, meals, in-country transport and visas.

    When such agencies spend more time and resources satisfying the desires of volunteers, the sustainability and needs of the volunteer project come second to the caprices of wealthy tourists cum humanitarians. Admittedly, some part of the program fee goes toward the project, but the vast sums of money could probably be better spent on building pre-existing infrastructure within the target community or even right here in the United States.

    Voluntourism promotes sentimental concern for the needy abroad that can blind us to the poverty at home. You don’t have to travel to Bolivia or Vietnam or Tanzania to find causes or individuals in need of assistance. Voluntourism can, however, potentially inculcate the pretentious fiction that the only needy beneficiaries of volunteer service are in developing countries. It’s easier that way: after our adrenaline rush of charity we can return to our privileged lives knowing we’ve satisfied our duty to help others.

    Yet, the most successful community development and volunteer endeavors are the products of sustained and committed involvement – which a two-week spell cannot imitate. The brevity of volunteer travel programs that makes them so popular also detracts from their efficacy. Projects may be long enough to provide moral fulfillment to the individual volunteer, but they might be too fleeting to have matching benefits to the community.

    Granted, the spirit of volunteer travel is noble: international volunteerism fosters solidarity, trust and reciprocity among diverse cultural groups and heralds global community cohesion. As students, when we embark on our voluntourism adventures, we should ensure programs prioritize the short- and long-term gains of the project over the wants of the volunteer. Similarly, we should pledge to use our unique assets and skills to generate tangible benefits for the community, not just impressive additions to our resumes.

    Christina Jelly is a senior majoring in
    biochemistry and philosophy. She can be reached at

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