Two Sides of ‘Voluntourism’ Explored

    An American volunteer teaching in Kenya. The question whether volunteers from the United States should stay home or go out into the world has been a topic of debate. Photo by: M Wagner / CC BY-NC-SA2.0 M WagnerCC BY-NC-SA2.0

    Should they stay or should they go?

    The question on whether volunteers from the United States should stay home or go out into the world has been the topic of debate, according to a blog entry in the “MIT Global Challenge Notebook.”

    The post says the side effect of economist and New York Times columnist William Easterly’s “The Elusive Quest for Growth: An Economists Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics” is “a rising call for American voluntary aid workers to stay home.”

    Through his book, the blog post adds, Easterly “lays out a passionate, cogent case that U.S. foreign aid has not delivered the economic and social benefits donors should expect.” Add this voice to that of journalists like Nicolas Kristoff, who has raised awareness on conditions in poor nations, and you have an increased number of U.S. volunteers looking to “do something,” the blogger says.

    This “do-something” attitude has given rise to “voluntourism,” which has frustrated many in the development world. The blogger notes many in cyberspace think that “’amateurs’ - volunteers, really - don’t know enough about aid and development to get it right. They are instead indulging an altruistic ‘feel good’ impulse that would be better left at home.”

    However, the blogger lists two points to consider before agreeing to this line of thinking:

    - Official development assistance levels in 2008 reached about USD25 billion, up from USD16 billion in 2003, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. U.S. volunteers, the writer says, “are owning up to their financial power in the aid world, and are taking the opportunity to become more informed about their impact by finding ways to contribute more than dollars.”

    - More people over 50 are signing up for volunteer work and bring with them valuable knowledge, skills and experience. This cancels out the argument that most volunteers are ill-equipped and under-skilled.

    The blogger ends the post with a call to those opposed and for “voluntourism” to engage in a healthy debate.

    “I worry that, if left to the detractors, America’s long tradition of mutual aid and citizen-to-citizen assistance will become another politicized and polarized facet of American life where the cynics and the critics carry the debate, and the day. Instead, lets discuss ways technical, financial, and humanitarian assistance can be made more effective and beneficial - at both ends of the transaction,” the blogger says in closing.

    About the author

    • Louie-An Pilapil

      Louie-An is a former senior development analyst at Devex Manila. She has held consulting and editorial positions at the Asian Development Bank in Manila and a business-to-business media company in Hong Kong and mainland China.