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Avoiding "Voluntourism"

Ann Mellow
June 19, 2012
Global education, hands-on learning, and service to others have gained increasing traction in schools, colleges, and universities. Today, middle school, high school, and college students take their education “on the road” to solve real-world problems.  They dig wells, build schools, teach children, and engage in a multitude of other service initiatives around the world.

But this explosion of service abroad has created new realities and new concerns. In affluent communities, volunteering in Latin America or Africa is almost de rigeur. A burgeoning market of for-profit companies attends to this growing demand, and college admissions officers have come to bemoan yet another essay about “my service trip to...”

All of which has raised important conversations about the intent, efficacy, and ethical dimensions of international service experiences for youth and adults.  The terms “voluntourism,” “slumdog tourism,” and “poverty tourism” have been coined to describe the most questionable of these programs.

Luckily, there are deeply experienced people who can help our schools to avoid the worst pitfalls of "voluntourism" and instead engage in effective and responsible volunteer global action. People like Aaron Ausland, author of the blog Staying for Tea, who notes that community-based international development needs to “value people over projects, and effectiveness over good intentions;” organizations such as Episcopal Relief and Development and other well-established NGO’s that have deep experience working for systemic change across cultural, economic, and linguistic divides; and the growing fields of service learning, civic engagement, and social entrepreneurship.

Serving is good, making a difference is good, and redressing systemic inequity is critical.  But global service and international development are particularly complex undertakings, and notions about how to do it well are continually changing and evolving. Let’s be sure we are not just doing it, but doing it well.

Learn more

Guidelines for Schools: Developing Partnerships Across Cultural and Economic Difference

Staying for Tea: Poverty Tourism Taxonomy 2.0
Staying for Tea is Aaron Ausland’s blog about community-based international development.

Building a Better World: The Pedagogy and Practice of Global Service-Learning

1 Comment

  1. 1 Phil Hadley 14 Jul
    I'm concerned that your negative comments about "voluntours" is spreading an unfortunate image of some very fine programs.  I serve on the board of directors for Via International, a service organization that sponsors trips along the California-Mexico border, northern New Mexico, Appalachia, and Guatemala.  Our trips are designed to serve the communities our students visit and our organization is committed to helping people, families, and communities build "Paths to Self-Reliance for an Interdependent World."  I have also been an educator at five Episcopal schools and believe that voluntourism, as practiced by Via, wonderfully supports our mission.

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