Where Volunteering Meets Vacation

by Brendan James

Sarah Sloat questions the point of volunteer tourism, where travelers usually get a cheaper trip by signing up for community service in the host country:

Dr. Mary Mostafanezhad of the University of Otago consider(s) volunteer tourism to be, at best, an oversimplification of international development and, at worst, a perpetuation of colonialist behavior. (“Superior nations” have a moral responsibility to fix “lesser nations.”) During 16 months of ethnographic research, Mostafanezhad interviewed numerous volunteers about their experience working in Thailand and found that poverty was consistently described as a symptom of authenticity. “A result of this association is the depoliticization of poverty,” Mostafanezhad writes, “where questions of why or how people became ‘p00r’ are overshadowed by the aesthetic pleasure of the experience.”

Still, because volunteering does stem from a desire to do some good, critics of it acknowledge that it doesn’t need to be destroyed, but rather refocused. Perhaps volunteer tourism, as it is now, should be reserved for conservation efforts only. Donald Brightsmith a research assistant professor at Texas A&M, writes that the relationship between these three parties is a positive one: Volunteer tourists bring in funding for conservation research that is “chronically lacking,” researchers are able to complete their work, and volunteers receive the skill set that will help them become “young biologists, foresters, and veterinarians.”