Voluntourism: why sending money is not enough

By Eli VanDuzer

 Eli VanDuzer in Ghana with some of the community kids after a soccer game. Photo: Jeremy Roy-Vandal

Eli VanDuzer in Ghana with some of the community kids after a soccer game. Photo: Jeremy Roy-Vandal
Last summer I travelled to Ghana to help develop an after-school sports education program. I did my best to immerse myself in the new and strange culture, from bartering at the local market and attending the boisterous Sunday sermons to playing soccer in the African sunset. As I said in an article about my experience in last August’s Glebe Report, it was nothing like what I had expected but everything I didn’t know I wanted it to be.

To my surprise, though, I returned to mixed reactions from friends and family. Reactions that got me thinking – did I make a positive difference in the community I was visiting? Are these types of organized trips, which send a group of privileged first-world kids to developing countries, worth it? Does it make sense to send a kid who can’t be trusted with a hammer to build a school for a community? The recent fad of voluntourism is denounced as much as it is praised. But although there are some valid arguments against the practice, I hope to show that going on a voluntourism trip is still worthwhile (although maybe not for the reasons you thought).

First let’s define voluntourism. Volunteer vacations, volunteer tourism or “voluntourism” is travel that includes volunteering for a charitable cause. This includes trips through community groups, international organizations and mission trips. It is not a new concept but one that has gained momentum in the last 10 years. Typically, voluntourism involves youth from developed parts of the world travelling to developing countries with the goal of making a positive impact in a specific community.

The main critique of voluntourism is that the central goal of the trip is often not achieved or achieved poorly, and the funds necessary for the trip are spent fruitlessly. Schools don’t get finished, fences aren’t built soundly, wells aren’t deep enough and orphanages only get half a new room. Would it not have been more cost effective, a better stimulus to the local economy and more efficient to take the money used for these trips and hire local people to do the work? How can we justify the large amount of money spent flying young people halfway across the world? Given the high cost of travel and the lack of applicable skills that most teens possess, does voluntourism make sense?

Let me try to convince you that it is still worthwhile. First, it is important to understand that you will get more out of a voluntourism trip than you will give. Some voluntourism industry leaders will tell you that you are a godsend, and sometimes the people in the community you are working with make you feel that you are making a huge difference in their lives, but you should not see yourself that way. Don’t paint yourself as a saint – voluntourism is always partly a selfish decision that will benefit you much more than the community you are visiting.

What you gain from the experience will help you become a more aware person. Seeing firsthand the amount of effort it is to get water every morning is not going to make you stop taking showers when you come home, but every time you turn on that tap and an endless supply of pristine water spews out you’ll take a millisecond and appreciate what you have. Until you see in person how much need some communities have, you won’t really be able to conceptualize the conditions millions of people face every day.

It is not realistic to think that your two-week volunteer visit to an underprivileged village will transform it into a clean, successful and self-sufficient community. It’s really about bringing perspective to your life and lighting the fire to start fundraising back home. We live such busy lives that the plight of others often does not occupy even a portion of our thoughts. If a voluntourism trip makes us think about others a little more, then it is a success.

Be smart about travelling; strive to be informed and culturally aware. Don’t paint yourself as a hero, understand your trip for what it is. The real impact of these trips occurs when you come home with a better understanding of how fortunate you are and of the challenges that people in other parts of the world face.

Eli VanDuzer, a former Glebe Collegiate student, is studying kinesiology at Western University.

Carleton grad in Lesotho

By Stephanie Vizi

Volunteer Stephanie Vizi and two small children at an orphanage in Maputsoe, Lesotho. Photo: Stephanie Vizi
Volunteer Stephanie Vizi and two small children at an orphanage in Maputsoe, Lesotho. Photo: Stephanie Vizi
Lately, people seem to find the most interesting thing about me to be that I am moving halfway across the world to a small African country called Lesotho. Most people respond with, “wow, that’s brave.” Some ask if I will be living in a hut or if I will encounter wild animals. The answer is simply that I am going to Lesotho, a mountainous country landlocked by South Africa, to learn.

I was selected by Ottawa-based charity, Help Lesotho, for a year-long self-funded internship at a community centre built by the organization in a small town called Hlotse. I will live in comfortable accommodations, eat food from the local grocery store and no, I will not come across lions, tigers or bears unless I go on safari. I will receive the opportunity of a lifetime to learn the art of development firsthand from the local Basotho staff. I will support projects focused on HIV/AIDS education, gender equity and social justice.

But, how does one prepare for such an adventure? Mission trips, volunteering abroad and international development in general receive a great deal of criticism in their tendency to use band-aid solutions and create more problems for the locals after the westerners return to their comfortable middle-class lives. I want to help, not hurt.

I am a recent Carleton University journalism and African studies grad. I have volunteered at an orphanage in Lesotho twice before and I am compelled by my interest in Southern Africa to use this opportunity to embrace Basotho culture, further my knowledge in development and put my degree to good use.

In preparation for my role at Help Lesotho, I have studied the organization’s history and progress. I also read books about AIDS and helping others, such as 28 Stories by Stephanie Nolen, Race Against Time by Stephen Lewis, Becoming Human by Jean Vanier and When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

Help Lesotho founder, Peg Herbert, created the organization after a visit to the country in 2004. She discovered a forgotten country, one that has the second highest HIV prevalence in the world; a traditional patriarchal societal structure that leads to the oppression of girls and women; two hundred thousand children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic; and grandmothers who struggle to provide for these orphans. Jean Vanier writes, “If we listen to their cries and open up our hearts it will cost us something. So we pretend not to hear the cry and exclude them.” Help Lesotho is a response to the Basotho’s cries.

Rondavel huts of Lesotho. Photo: Stephanie Vizi
Rondavel huts of Lesotho. Photo: Stephanie Vizi
Lesotho is a country in need; Help Lesotho alleviates this need by supporting 10,000 orphans, vulnerable youth, young mothers and grannies every year. I believe development works best when it is lead by nationals. This is precisely how Help Lesotho operates.

I expect my heart to be broken over and over again as I come to be a part of a society with so much grief, loss and poverty. I look forward to joining the team in Lesotho.

Next year marks Help Lesotho’s 10th anniversary; to find out more about Help Lesotho, visit www.helplesotho.org

Stephanie Vizi is a journalist and Carleton grad volunteering with Help Lesotho and blogging about her experiences at

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