“Volunteer tourism, also called ‘voluntourism’, describes tourists volunteering for a charity or development organization, usually for short periods, in developing countries”. However voluntourism is defined, the desire to make a difference in the lives of people deemed as being less fortunate is a popular trend and consequently, big business.
The $173+ billion industry typically attracts students (often in their gap year), 'empty nest' parents and keen travellers for trips of up to 3 months. Although they are well intentioned, the impact of short-term visits can be harmful in certain instances, particularly if the volunteers lack a specific understanding of the local context, not to mention the necessary skills. With the object of avoiding unnecessary personal risk and not burdening already stressed humanitarian responses, individuals need a list of relevant competencies, as well as organisational support.
So what types of voluntourism are there?
Providing language lessons: Knowledge of spoken and written English is seen in many communities as a path to self-sufficiency.
Assisting in animal or nature conservation: Both are important causes which can offer unique experiences and insights into the issues facing endangered species of flora and fauna.
Improving infrastructure: May involve labouring on homes and schools or educating a community on ‘how to reduce, reuse and recycle’ waste.
Health: Experiencing the conditions under which local health professionals work while gaining an understanding of the public health concerns in the region.
Supporting NGOs or supplying humanitarian aid: Potentially a placement of longer duration helping under-resourced organisations improve the lives of a local population or offering skilled assistance in emergency situations – a possibly dangerous scenario.
Considering the motives behind volunteering
While most volunteers would admit that their primary motive is to help people and to benefit society (and in the process feel good about doing it), they often lack a true understanding of the local situation and underlying issues. Volunteering, even with enthusiasm, may be detrimental if long term support is not also created to enable changes to the system, alleviation of poverty and aid for the vulnerable. This is not to say that volunteer organisations and those who offer their assistance to them do not provide outstanding work in resource-poor settings, but to highlight some of the potential ancillary drawbacks.
Going about volunteering, responsibly
The first steps call for research, research and more research: the organisation behind the program and any reports relating to the impact it has had on the local community or environment, the experiences of their former volunteers, any training or briefings provided, the landscape of the social, economic, political, cultural and historic contexts of the destination, and of course, support measures for the volunteers – medical, psychological, safety and security.
Initially, it may be preferable to consider a short term volunteering experience in a cultural exchange to get a sense of the immersion in the local population, rather than a humanitarian undertaking.
Scope of medical and psychological issues
One small study undertaken by Furuya-Kanamori et al in 2017 found that among gap volunteers, many had relatively common health problems such as sunburn, dehydration and skin infections which could have been prevented or minimised by expanding their pre-trip education to include environmental risks, as well as their first aid skills in areas such as wound management.
On a more serious note, accidents and injuries are recognised as a leading cause of hospitalisations and deaths in travellers and voluntourists, arguably, have an even higher risk due to their extended travel and exposure to local conditions. Careful planning must go into avoiding hazards whether they relate to the work undertaken, transport or during tourist activities. The recommendations for routine, recommended and required vaccinations for the destination apply as does the general travel health checklist: food and water precautions, insect and animal bite avoidance and the prevention of blood-borne infections.
When it comes to psychological problems, many factors come into play, among them: drugs, environment, homesickness, prior mental health conditions, culture shock and a lack of practical life skills – cooking and how to deal with substandard living quarters.
Safety and security
- Terrorism - Know the current terrorist threat or political unrest at your destination. The targeting of aid workers in particular has been a concern for those engaging in humanitarian volunteer work in a small number of locations - particularly in Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The advice for anyone deployed as a humanitarian aid worker in areas known to have security risks is to undergo specialised briefings organised by the agency arranging their mission or a private company.
- Smartraveller – DFAT no longer offers a registration service for overseas travel. Now, in the event of a ‘situation’ overseas which could impact Australians, a crisis page will be activated requesting our nationals to contact the department.
As part of the pre-departure preparation, it is recommended that voluntourism travellers - particularly those going to developing countries - attend a travel medical consultation for relevant advice and information about destination-specific health issues, vaccinations, prophylactic medications (e.g. malaria prophylaxis if required) and a comprehensive first aid kit.
During the consultation, the healthcare professional will undertake a detailed evaluation of medical risk factors as well as mental health risk factors (psychiatric illness, family history, history of alcohol or substance abuse) which can assist identifying any previously unrecognised psychological problems or chronic conditions (and therefore suitability for placement). Any of these issues may become exacerbated under certain stressful environments and result in emergency repatriation.
What to include in the medical kit
- Insect repellent
- First aid items – dressings, disinfectant (povidine iodine)
- Dental pack
- Water purifier
- Impregnated net/sleeping bag liner
- Medications - regular prescription, plus analgesia, cold/flu, antibiotics, antihistamines, laxatives
- Respiratory tract – antibiotics, decongestants
- Gastro - rehydration salts, ‘stopper’ drugs, medications for nausea, colic, parasites, antibiotics
- Malaria prevention
- Skin creams and ointments – antifungal (for tinea and thrush), antiseptic (for abrasions and wounds), topical steroid cream
Where to get help overseas
Access will be lacking to the usual support systems available to the volunteer in Australia so support must be sought locally, and from friends, family and the relevant travel insurer.
Please be aware that the Australian Government can only help in certain circumstances. In many instances, all other avenues of must be exhausted before seeking consular assistance.
In the event of an emergency, contact the nearest Australian embassy or consulate.
Some travel-related illnesses may not cause symptoms until you get home. Make an appointment to see your doctor and provide him or her with all relevant details of your itinerary and activities for the entire trip.
Voluntourism travellers may find it psychologically quite challenging upon return home, particularly those who may have been involved in medical or humanitarian work. This is known as “reverse culture shock”. It is imperative that individuals seek treatment and counselling should there be any concerns around their ability to transition back into everyday life.
US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2020/travel-for-work-other-reasons/humanitarian-aid-workers
Save The Children: https://www.savethechildren.org.au/our-stories/the-truth-about-voluntourism
Volunteering Solutions: https://www.volunteeringsolutions.com/blog/10-most-interesting-facts-about-volunteering-abroad/
Medical and psychological problems faced by young Australian gap year travellers: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28931145/
Selling voluntourism: https://www.travelagentcentral.com/selling-voluntourism