Volunteer tourism: Help or Hurt?

[My trip diary will continue on Monday. But this blog presents a related topic.]

I heard a NPR news story about volunteer tourism and who it helps most (listen here). If you have gone on, heard about, or given to short-term missions projects, you likely have considered the question of whether it is really worth the expense. Are locals really being helped when huge amounts of cash must be used to fly and house outsiders on their trip. At times I have wavered. Should this 30,000 dollars be better used by giving it to local ministries and letting them hire local workers to do what outsiders might do.

Sometimes this is true. But there are a few things to consider:

1. The money probably wouldn’t be raised without sending the outsiders.

2. Having outsiders come and see provides much encouragement.

3. Developing world-minded outsiders (read Americans) can have significant and ongoing impact.

4. Some trips are better than others (as the news story suggests) in that giving goes to local ministries. On our recent trip we stayed at ministry guesthouses which support those ministries and provide jobs to local people. We paid small businesses for services whenever possible.

No doubt some trips are harmful, especially when they promise but do not deliver or continue to support imbalance of power. But many trips do significant benefit for all involved.


Filed under Africa

5 responses to “Volunteer tourism: Help or Hurt?

  1. I spend a lot of time thinking about this topic…it’s one of those thoughts that just doesn’t leave me alone. I think what bothers me most about short term trips is not so much the fact that outsiders are coming in with money that could have been used differently. What has tended to bother me is the superior attitudes that people tend to come in with. I think that you are right that the money would probably not otherwise make it over to other places because most people will give to someone they know and not a mysterious organization they are unaware of. Today, it seems, I have landed on the pro side of short term trips.

  2. Marilynn Grimm

    I am familiar with volunteer tourism. I have been on such trips. People who really don’t want to work but rather use the mission trip as a vacation. It was very frustrating for those of us who were there to work. On the other hand even
    though I was working, my attitude did a diservice to my Lord. I probably did as much damage by being angry and not showing the love of God to my felow missionaries as did the volunteer tourists.

  3. piper Lowell

    I asked a pastor who was in favor of short-term trips if there were down sides (He is in favor of them for all the reason you mentioned but mostly because our hearts follow our money and our money follow our people).
    “Oh, yes.”
    “Such as…?”
    “Walking through villages in coordinated neon t-shirts with ‘Hope for the Hopeless’ printed on them.”

  4. Piper, yes, I struggle with those t-shirts too! Or the one that says Muzungu. Duh, do you need a t-shirt?

    I also struggle with attitudes toward some short term trippers. Enough that I have considered not doing things so I won’t be lumped in with them. But, I too land on the pro-side. I have seen things birthed that were the direct result of a number of trips. Such ministry is inefficient in the best sense of that word.

  5. Shirley

    My niece and nephew have been taken on missionary trips into the Transkei, since their mid teens. They get trained in their local Baptist church which is situated in a privileged area in Cape Town, South Africa. The place they go to takes volunteer tourists and they are organised in the way they ‘use’ them. Today my niece is studying Occupational Therapy and is well equipped to go into disadvantaged areas in Cape Town. Her brother also has a heart for the under privileged, even as he goes on to study environmental science next year. How much have they helped in their mission trips? I don’t know. However, the exposure has had life changing impact, in their lives.

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