Voluntourism is an unproductive form of foreign aid

Valeria Pizarro

Contrary to popular beliefs, soft colonialism is alive and well, and it comes as a mix of Facebook statuses, volunteering and tourism. Voluntourism, a portmanteau of volunteer and tourism, is contradictory and suggests that volunteering is a well-intentioned effort that can easily be put aside to make time for fun.

The intent behind these trips is generally selfish when the interest is personal gain. Carrie Kahn from NPR writes that “some trips help young adults pad their résumés or college applications more than they help those in need.” If a cause is so important to people, they wouldn’t be wasting time touring a place when they could be helping more.

“Voluntourism perpetuates the same lack of caring for the people in those areas,” said Jacob Barrios, government and Mexican American studies senior. “These voluntourism programs might have good intentions, but a lot of times they come in and help communities in ways that are not actually helpful to these communities.”

This is a form of modern colonialism. Bringing in people and putting them to work puts locals out of jobs. Other consequences include emotional damage to children and even distracting young children from their schoolwork. As a result, the communities themselves don’t see progress following Westerners’ visits. 

This form of volunteering that makes the time to sightsee specifically targets underdeveloped environments. In an article for Generation Progress, geographer Amy Norman is quoted saying that “In the West, the idea of allowing foreign tourists to come visit institutions where vulnerable children live, and to combine this with a trip to say, the Grand Canyon, well this would seem outrageous, … but for some reason this seems perfectly normal … in Africa.”

Rocío Villalobos is the program coordinator at the Multicultural Engagement Center and volunteers with groups focusing on immigrant rights, women’s rights, education, and mental health issues. She said UT students “should also be self-reflective and self-critical about why they’re going into these communities in the first place.”

“Is there something else that they should be doing at home in the communities they live and have more of a connection to?” Rocío Villalobos said. “If they care about the people and the community they want to visit and help, is there something else they can do that would better communicate their feelings of solidarity and support?”

Volunteering is necessary in places other than those our Western gaze deems underdeveloped, such as local spots in need. Taking time off of volunteering to tour a new place is counterproductive to helping a community, especially when the efforts can do more harm than good.

Pizarro is an English sophomore from El Paso.