DISCLAIMER: As someone who believes strongly in the power of human relations, this post is NOT meant to discourage anyone from considering volunteer work. “Volunteer” can often be found next to “Angel” in the dictionary of non-for-profit, NGO, community and social change arenas.

There is no precise way to quantify the number of people “in need” on our planet. Is it even really possible to say with certainty that we know the total population of a country when this location is subject to hundreds of thousands of refugees and illegal migrant workers? And what does “in need” mean to the average middle class westerner graduating high school looking for an interesting getaway experience or something to spruce up the resumé? This question had been tormenting me for quite some time as my Facebook and Instagram became more and more interspersed with selfies taken captioned “The cutie I helped while in the Dominican for a week”.

I ventured on a quest to attempt to uncover what I believed to be a puzzling dichotomy between traditional and volunteer tourism in developing regions. I came to realize very quickly that the unfolding of the answer lay in the motivations behind becoming a “tourist” versus an “international volunteer”. Unfortunately the lines are often being blurred, and the idea of volunteering for a month abroad is being sold to a new population of young globalized citizens of the world. This demographic are searchers of adventure with mouths watering for the unknown and yearning to taste the authentic, and I should know! I’m a part of it!

During this research my heart was often split in two as I so terribly wanted to believe that help, no matter where or who it comes from, should be valued and should be considered useful. I so badly wanted to believe that ANY effort, big or small, is necessary for social change. This why I write this post. I was wrong.

Here are 3 pointers to help round out certain ideas about volunteer tourism abroad and some things to keep in mind when/if you are thinking of contributing to a community in this way:

1. Many international volunteer organizations follow a touristic business model that emulates the importance of your $ and not your time or effort volunteering. If you need to pay a pretty penny in addition to your flight and room & board, then I would consider investigating the organization further. Where is your money going exactly?

2. Isn’t it strange that volunteer tourism organizations recruit non-engineer volunteers to assist in the engineering of their local orphanage or school construction? How come non-teacher volunteers are assigned teaching posts? The answer is simple but the ripple effect is complex.

These organizations take pride in making the good hearted western population feel useful and self-rewarded by allowing (often very inexperienced) folk to participate in trades such as building wells or constructing community shelters. Much too often, the work the inexperienced volunteer tourist will do in a week will have to be re-done or re-examined after their holiday is over, to ensure that it can even securely and properly function. Secondly, local construction workers, teachers, day care workers are often neglected and deprived from participating in the local economy…due to the fact that western volunteer tourists are arriving for temporary periods of time to work on the same projects for free. This creates a dangerous band-aid effect on the country’s economic state and social disparity. The only people who are truly “getting richer” are then the volunteer tourist organizations, and not the economy in need further propelling underdevelopment in the region.

If all of this is sounding blah blah to you, at least keep this point in mind. The implementation of volunteer tourists in a country’s job market often makes locals believe that their people, their country, cannot fend for themselves, cannot produce for themselves, cannot utilize the resources their population has to offer. Over time, people become less and less confident in their own, and more and more reliant on the “white saviour”.

3. Volunteer tourism typically hosts programs for 1-2-3 or 4 weeks. This creates a seriously unstable, constantly shifting group of people. Many social volunteer positions (teaching, care taking etc) deserve the establishment of secure relationships between the caretaker and the receiver. Remember how you felt in 2nd grade when your favourite teacher left the school? Imagine this feeling every few weeks… Eventually children distance themselves from trusting completely and fully benefitting from the services provided. And isn’t that the opposite of what you, as a volunteer, came to do?

We ALL have the power and strength to become agents of social change. But the medium is the message. Be inquisitive about the organizations you partner with and listen to the locals in the area you are travelling to. They know what they need most.