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The voluntourist's dilemma


For the New York Times, Jacob Kushner writes about a pernicious new subgenre of disaster tourism: voluntourism. Voluntourists, writes Kushner, spent thousands of dollars flying to third world disaster zones to help build schools and churches, for example, even though they have no speciality in construction or engineering. Further, this takes away needed job opportunities and income from locals, he writes. Read Kushner in partial below, in full via the New York Times.

Several years ago, when I was working as a reporter based in Haiti, I came upon a group of older Christian missionaries in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, struggling with heavy shovels to stir a pile of cement and sand. They were there to build a school alongside a Methodist church. Muscular Haitian masons stood by watching, perplexed and a bit amused at the sight of men and women who had come all the way from the United States to do a mundane construction job.

Such people were a familiar sight: They were voluntourists. They would come for a week or two for a “project” — a temporary medical clinic, an orphanage visit or a school construction. A 2008 study surveyed 300 organizations that market to would-be voluntourists and estimated that 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending around $2 billion annually. A few are celebrities supporting their cause du jour, who drop in to meet locals and witness a project that often bears their name. Many more come to teach English during high school, college vacations or during a gap year. Others are sun-seeking vacationers who stay at beachside resorts but who also want to see “the real (name your country).” So they go into a community for an afternoon to help local women make beads, jewelry or clothes.

Volunteering seems like an admirable way to spend a vacation. Many of us donate money to foreign charities with the hope of making the world a better place. Why not use our skills as well as our wallets? And yet, watching those missionaries make concrete blocks that day in Port-au-Prince, I couldn’t help wondering if their good intentions were misplaced. These people knew nothing about how to construct a building. Collectively they had spent thousands of dollars to fly here to do a job that Haitian bricklayers could have done far more quickly. Imagine how many classrooms might have been built if they had donated that money rather than spending it to fly down themselves. Perhaps those Haitian masons could have found weeks of employment with a decent wage. Instead, at least for several days, they were out of a job.

*Image of Ben Stiller visiting Port-au-Prince via New York Times