Over the last few weeks, I have stumbled upon several articles discussing the value (or lack of thereof) of sending young people to volunteer overseas. As an employee of Progressio, an international development charity that sends 18-25 years old to Africa and Central America, I felt I needed to dig into the issue a bit more.

Most of the discussions on the topic centre around the word “voluntourism” – a compound word formed by the union of the nouns “volunteer” and “tourism”. According to the Oxford dictionary voluntourism is “a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity”. Both, word and the definition, repulse me. The concept of “voluntourism” works against the values of involving young people in international development. It puts everyone in the same basket and mistakenly assumes that the volunteers sent by organisations such as Progressio and many others working in the development sector, go overseas on a paid holiday. 

Let us make this clear: sending volunteers abroad costs money and takes hours of work. This includes recruiting the right volunteers, training them, raising funds, planning the projects and implementing and monitoring the activities. I might have not paid enough attention, but I am yet to meet a travel agent who is minimally interested in doing all that.

International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) working in the developing sector are accountable for the outcomes of their projects. In a nutshell: having no development impact translates into a waste of time and resources for everyone and cuts in funding. If INGOs are not achieving what they are set to do then they should either redirect their projects, so that they make a lasting impact, or cease to exist. 

So if INGOs are not interested in sending young people on a volunteering holiday, who is? Twitter answered my question. I logged in and typed the term “#voluntourism” on the searching bar and pressed enter. Out of the ten first results, six were travel agencies selling their expensive holiday packages under the label of voluntourism. 

The whole idea of the capitalist machinery stepping into the work of International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) and taking advantage of developing countries to make a profit is horrifyingly twisted and makes me utterly sick. I'll tell you why… 

Progressio’s vision is to stand alongside people who live in poverty and support them to gain power and transform their lives. Progressio is not a superhero but a mere facilitator. The communities we work with, are the main agents of change, they are the stars. Our programmes place people at the epicentre of development and Progressio is there just to spark, support, enhance and monitor positive change. This includes our volunteering programme, International Citizen Service (ICS), which sends young people to volunteer overseas for cycles of 10 weeks. Our ICS teams in London and in-country work hard to ensure our projects have a positive and sustainable impact in our communities. 

Development does not happen overnight, it is the fruit of a structured and well planned strategy. So the whole travel-agency-disguised-as-a-charity issue represents an attack not only to the work that INGOs do but also to the dignity of the people living in developing countries. Voluntourism forgets about the real agents of international development. It shifts the attention towards the wrong individuals. It places the emphasis on the Westerners, the people who are travelling there for a short holiday break thinking they are gods with the power to solve the lives of the communities they happen to visit.

Hassan Maulana is a 24 year old who lives in Malenga village (Malawi) and who's had a great deal of interaction with Progressio ICS volunteers last year. He says: “I now know how to live safely with my HIV and am no longer ashamed of it or living under the stigma of the virus. I have seen the discrimination decrease amongst my peers and have had my eyes lifted to believe I can do anything I put my mind to. I have a desire to support others living with HIV/AIDs and have started volunteering with a local organisation tackling social issues in my community”. 

This is what development looks like for Progressio: transformative, empowering, radical. This is the kind of impact we are looking at when we involve our young volunteers in the complex matrix of international development. Do you think it is possible to achieve that on a holiday trip? Would a gap year company or travel agency selling expensive voluntourism packages care about the impact they make? I will let you figure that one out… 

Written by Carlos Velazquez / Pictures by Victoria Rouine