What springs to mind when you hear ‘volunteering abroad’? For many, it is Western teenagers taking selfies with smiling children in ‘Africa’, enjoying the fact that they’re having an ‘authentic’ cultural experience and improving the lives of the less fortunate.
My first experience of this was in Ecuador. I was sixteen, and had signed up to a month-long World Challenge expedition, which mixed tourism with volunteering in a local community. I’d had to fundraise to pay the (significant) costs involved – two years’ worth of bake sales, tea and coffee events, and any odd jobs I could get my hands on.
If you were on campus over the past few months, you might have seen lime-green flyers for Growth International Volunteer Excursions (GIVE) — an international volunteer organization with programs in multiple countries — in bathrooms, classrooms and academic buildings.
UNC has 400 study abroad programs across 70 different countries, but that number doesn’t include the countless non-University affiliated programs advertised across campus.
Some people enjoy touring other countries in order to participate in volunteer work — this trend has become known as “voluntourism.”
Although voluntourism seems helpful on the surface, it can actually be very harmful in the long run because of the unintended consequences it can inflict on international communities.
According to Save the Children Australia, popular voluntourism destinations for Australians such as Bali, Thailand and Cambodia have seen the number of orphanages increase by up to 500 per cent since the trend began.
In middle school, I remember hearing about the local church visiting a rural town in Mexico with a group of volunteers for a week to build houses. At the time, I was impressed. Not only did I not know how to find these sort of opportunities on my own, but I remember thinking how noble it was to put yourself outside your comfort zone in such a productive way.
Despite powerful evidence of the negative impact of orphanage care, private donors continue to provide large amounts of funding to orphanages through donations, volunteer tourism, mission trips and other forms of fundraising – adding to the pull factors drawing more vulnerable children into institutional care and away from family or community care.
Do you have money and think you can change the world with it? Do you have low self-esteem, or simply crave instant gratification on social media? Or maybe you just want to increase your chance to on Tinder by embodying a third-world savior persona? Well, I’ve got an easy answer to check all your theoretical boxes: voluntourism.
Institution-based sexual exploitation, including within orphanages, is on the rise in South- East Asia. While the drivers of this increase are complex, the growth in volunteer and orphanage tourism creates opportunities for child sexual exploitation by allowing contact between vulnerable children and child sex offenders, stimulating demand for orphanages and orphaned children through child trafficking and paper orphaning, and providing the necessary conditions for orphanage scams.
It was 2010, I was just finishing my A levels and had two months before starting university. I knew I wanted to go away and do something different. I was interested in development work and as an eager and naïve 17-year-old, volunteering abroad in an orphanage seemed like a rewarding, helpful and ethical thing to do.