A Note About "Voluntourism"

Anyone choosing to serve in a foreign location knows that it is a daunting proposition. Far too often, well-intentioned people decide to spend a week or two in an emerging country doing “service” with little to no understanding of the unintended negative consequences of their efforts. They believe they are doing good, but unfortunately, they end up hurting the people that they came to help by inadvertently damaging their social, economic, or environmental systems.

20 Years of Sustainable Building

20 Years of Sustainable Building

At Humanitarian Experience, we know that foreign volunteers can be miracles for people who struggle in poverty when service is done correctly. We have seen that happen over and over for the last 20 years in hundreds of global locations as our volunteers provide people with access to health care, education, and social services critical to their well-being.

However, we have also learned that setting out to serve abroad requires a sincere commitment to understanding the people and places where we serve. In our efforts to bless the lives of our brothers and sisters around the world, we have a responsibility to learn before we act. Any organization claiming to do humanitarian work perfectly is likely unaware of the complexities involved, and we understand that more than most. So here at Humanitarian Experience we live by a simple creed: to try to do as much good and as little harm as possible in our efforts to help and to love.

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So…what is voluntourism?

Humanitarian Experience’s unapologetic mission is to change lives through service—by that we mean the lives of our Builders (teenagers) as well as the lives of those we serve. We have learned over the years that this is a symbiotic relationship; unless our project is truly sustainable and has long-term impact for good on the community, it does not have the life-changing effect on our Builders that we promise.

Unfortunately, an ugly term has grown up in academia over the last ten years known as “voluntourism.” It is used derisively to refer to people who perform humanitarian work as a mechanism to boost their own image, or to those who go into poor communities just to take pictures without ever getting to know the people they serve. It also refers to those who work on projects that are completely unsustainable or worse, detrimental, to the locals, in order to gain the admiration of others. And sometimes, it just refers to people who have never thought about the repercussions of their efforts or taken the time to understand what they are doing.

Over the years, Humanitarian Experience has begun to take a very close look at the impact of our projects. We continue to learn what it means to be responsible humanitarians, and as we learn, we teach those lessons to our Builders. We consider important questions such as:

• Are we creating an over-reliance on our volunteers?

• Are there negative cultural repercussions from our efforts?

• Will this building be maintained and used properly by a reputable organization?

• Are we disrupting the local environment or economy to a detrimental outcome?

These questions, among many others, have helped us design a 360-degree rubric that we now use as the Humanitarian Experience standard of sustainability to evaluate our footprint in every global location. This rubric was originally designed by a group of MPA students at Brigham Young University and has undergone many iterations since then.

We hope to improve year after year as we constantly learn and understand more about the needs of the people we love. As humans, and as Christians, we believe that is all we can ask of one another.