Voluntourism hinders community development



Voluntourism has emerged in the last decade as a movement that gives people the opportunity to 'do good' in developing countries while on holiday.

Cartoon by James Foley, from the cover of Caritas Australia's 'Just Visiting' resource.More and more, school leavers are being invited to participate in 'life-changing' experiences where they build houses in Cambodia, or volunteer for a week in a Vietnamese orphanage.

These opportunities are attractive to graduates of the Catholic school system in particular, who understand a faith-inspired call to serve others. Nonetheless when presented with such opportunities we should exercise caution and informed discernment.

Populorum Progessio, the 1967 papal encyclical on the Development of Peoples, makes clear that human development needs to be primarily enacted by those who are part of a culture.

This is an expression of one of the core Catholic Social Teachings — the principle of subsidiarity; that people who are going to be affected by a decision, action or goodwill should be consulted about it.

Caritas Australia has developed a resource that reflects this principle, called 'Just Visiting?'. It explains why it's important, when we enter a community, to sit at the feet of the people and learn from them first, instead of imposing a western vision of what people need.

Caritas doesn't send missionaries overseas, and only participates in immersion programs that are educative and mutually beneficial.


"Well-educated young people would be much better placed to use their schooling and further education to give challenge to the structures that keep poverty on our global agenda." — Megan Bourke


An example is recounted by Brendan Joyce, who led a Caritas immersion to Cambodia in 2014. In his blog, he enunciates each of the core principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and shares how Caritas' partners in Cambodia work with local communities to train and empower them make their own decisions about what is needed.

'Village committees were established and trained in decision-making, minute taking, accounting and reporting; these were communities empowered to be the architects of their own futures,' he wrote.

Maryknoll Sister Len Montiel has spent many years working in Cambodia and, like many others who work in development contexts, sees value in the right kind of volunteer outreach.

She cautions, however, that if a person comes back from an immersion trip and their main conclusion is 'I am so thankful for what I have, because they have so little', they have missed the point.

When opportunities are presented to spend a week visiting an orphanage, constructing a chapel, or building houses for the poor, it's likely there is not a deep relationship with the local community or a mutual discernment of their needs at play.

These fly-in-fly-out trips can quickly end up being blind charity that does very little to help anyone in the long-term.

Megan Bourke, a justice educator for Caritas, says that while these trips can give us a warm, fuzzy feeling, the flow-on effect can have longer-term consequences for integral development.

'By sending young, inexperienced and unformed volunteers, we are creating a situation where well-intentioned young Aussies with goodness in their hearts are perhaps taking the job of a Cambodian teacher,' she says. 'They possibly don't know the local language, or how to teach age appropriate materials.

'For any experience to be worthy of those involved, both parties need to be able to enter as the learner — not one the "saviour" and the other "the grateful poor person".'

This is a hard sell for kids who have been educated, rightly, that helping the poor is what we are called to do. Without diminishing that seed of a desire to do good, we need to help it to grow in a way that empowers local communities to help themselves. Catholic Social Teaching principles provide a useful guide for this process.

It is difficult to create such experiences that are mutually beneficial for both the community and volunteers. But at the end of the day the most important thing is to carefully consider what is going to be most genuinely beneficial for those whom we are trying to help.

'In truth, well-educated young people would be much better placed to use their schooling and further education to give challenge to the structures that keep poverty on our global agenda,' says Megan.



Beth DohertyBeth Doherty is a journalist and formerly worked as an editor at Jesuit Communications. She teaches religion and media at a Catholic school in Canberra.

Main image: Cartoon by James Foley, from the cover of Caritas Australia's 'Just Visiting' resource.

Topic tags: Beth Doherty, volunteering, international aid, Caritas, Cambodia, Vietnam



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Existing comments

The desire to serve the poor often evident in young Catholics at the end of their final year or on leaving school is a worthy and laudable one, to be encouraged. The discernment process, which raises questions of motivation, aptitude, commitment, inter-cultural collaboration, methods of service and even life-calling, is an integral part of such experience - addressed in the selection process, the period of service itself, and on return to the school that exposed the student to the opportunity. It would be a pity and a loss if labels such as "voluntourism" and "holiday" were to deter generous-spirited young people from an important opportunity for the development of vision and service, especially those who are already involved in local community service activities. It is common in schools that present students with the option of service overseas, for the volunteers, on return, to share their experience with the school community - a valuable contribution in itself, as well as a significant part of the discernment process.
John | 25 May 2018

Really good article. So inciteful. Really enjoyed reading such an intelligent take on volunteering. We should also help people in our own communities like the homeless
Bernadette Nicoll | 25 May 2018

Let's ignore them and maybe they'll go away... I am sorry, whilst I saw the author's intention of this article, we cannot simply measure these trips based on a few superficial responses. Would we prefer our kids simply go to first world Europe or US or party hard in Cancun, Mexico pretending poverty doesn't exist? Young people process things in their own ways. Some will see it as a photo op, but some will be moved to a genuine commitment to the poor. I spent 30 minutes in an orphanage, it was the most heart breaking moment of my life. I am now in the process of adopting from an international country, not simply for that reason, but a few factors - but certainly that was a pivotal moment in my life. I certainly do not feel like the saviour of my future child, in a sense they're saving me. I feel sadly this article, whilst well intentioned, will do more harm than good.
Johanna | 25 May 2018

Very sensible article. If you’re going to drop in on a poor person, stay for a while or it’s just philanthropic onanism.
Roy Chen Yee | 25 May 2018

I agree with Johanna and also believe that we live in a chaotic world where we can't control the possible negative effects of any form of tourism - whether it's purely for pleasure, or so called volunteer tourism or cultural tourism. Let's give credit to people in other cultures and not be so paternalistic by trying to pretend they need protection. The article also smacks a bit of selfish snobbery. I simply say. go for it, get amongst them! People in developing countries I've visited are far more shrewd at handling foreign visitors with a spectrum of motivations than we give them credit for.
AURELIUS | 07 June 2018

I can concur with AURELIUS' comment to a degree. We can be as patronising in our care not to trample all over another's culture, as we can in attempting to be saviours. However AURELIUS, the power the rich travellers purse allows is persuasive, often encouraging development for the comfort of the traveller rather than for the culturally appropriate growth of the community. Our aid dollars can also create dependence. Volunteering done properly is by necessity done over a period of years, not weeks or months. Host and guest can then come to know one another and realise that it is only in solidarity, based in love, justice and humility that we develop each other. Palms Australia has been preparing Australian Catholics and others for such, since 1961. The next preparation course is being held in Sydney from July 7th - 14th. We invite the participation of all who wish to reach beyond every barrier of culture, religion, nationality, gender, class and individualism, to cooperate in achieving a just, sustainable, interdependent and peaceful world free of poverty.
Roger O'Halloran | 08 June 2018

Loved your article Beth particularly as you related it to Catholic Social Teaching. It is so easy for us to think of the fly-in-and-out "mission" as helping when as you point out it is taking agency from the people concerned. Thank you!
Ann Gilroy | 08 June 2018

As one who has prepared and led many groups overseas, I have witnessed the most worthwhile mutually beneficial activities, and also the worst of such things, akin to a"footy trip". The preparation, reflection during the trip, and debrief on return is absolutely necessary, and the trip lacks depth and authenticity without it. Those made poor don't exist to be used by westerners, and they have dignity and don't want to be passive recipients of our best intentions.
Lynne | 08 June 2018

Remember the language immersion 'schools' that used to operate in some South American villages? (Perhaps they still do). People wishing to learn Spanish, for example, boarded with local families and helped with the work of the people as they were able. There was no condescension possible - the visitors were there to acquire a skill, and to learn. Their board was a welcome source of income to the village. At the end - and people stayed for quite long periods - the ends of both parties had been served. The visitors had gone there to learn, and they certainly did. Including the new language. I don't think anyone wishes to suppress the spring of love and energy our young people have. It's important that it shouldn't just become a version of charity de haut en bas. Everyone needs transformation.
Joan Seymour | 08 June 2018

I have lead a number of student immersions to Nairobi Kenya and they have been very successful as we have not gone with preconceived ideas of what we will be doing for the people but with an openness to work alongside them and help them to achieve projects that they see as important. On occasions these have used cash which we fundraised and occasionally they have been able to discuss problems or road blocks and we have been able to suggest solutions which we can put in place together but most importantly it has been about solidarity with each other and all involved have come away better informed and enriched by the experience and the successes for all continue well after we have come home.
Jamie Chappell | 08 June 2018

Very thought provoking - thank you, Beth. We interact with people from other cultures in so many ways - as tourists in Bali or Phuket, in business discussions, in our schools and universities, at airports en route to Europe, on the streets of Australian cities, in our churches, etc. At each encounter we are surely challenged to respect the person we are meeting, and to make that encounter beneficial to all involved. In many cases, this will challenge us to address structural issues, as well as engage at the personal level. Prior reflection on the issues involved will surely prepare us for more fruitful encounters, and will sometimes lead us to change our plans. Subsequent reflection will leave us better placed for the future. Your article will help many of us to better engage in the future.
Denis Fitzgerald | 08 June 2018

Well's this is true to some extent I imagine the opposite is not better unfortunately. When a friend of mine attended a self-funded trip to Pakistan with an aid organisation, it was solely a "learning experience"/dislocating in that returning to Australian showed up our tendency to hide our 'light under the bushal'. She had seen & felt the deferred expectation of us helping them with funds later or with migration to Australia. Silent tours like that one had beautiful moments, like meeting truly holy leaders in situ and eating fresh sugarcane. She was either touted as the risqué 'blue dyed girl' as the ghetto blasters played a song for her; whilst concurrently nicknamed Lady Diana as she was expected to greet numerous villagers and be hosted by local parishes a completely shocking and humiliating one. Instead of stepping on locals toes she found it she came back to Australia bruised and facing the beginning of an adult lifetime of gut problems, (mainly stimulated by bad stress): initiated mainly because of medical bias against such country's supposed uncleanness & an overzealous prescriber for the possibility of gut worms/diseases. Alternately experience chance to life and she does credit it for having let her away from the rigours of academic excellence in but at what cost does a program attempt to archaeologically convince people who may well receive a negative message of not belonging there.
Louise | 09 June 2018

As a volunteer In Timor Leste for close to 3 years I found the 4 day volunteers idealism hard to work with- admirable but difficult
Paul Coghlan | 15 June 2018


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