Voluntourism is one of the controversial new tourism niches emerging today. On the outside, the premise sounds great- people from (generally) the first world spend their vacations in the third helping on projects and with those in need. However, as with many things, voluntourism is not always what it seems.
This month, I traveled to Ecuador to do the same through the program International Volunteers HQ (IVHQ). For my week spent on the program I worked with local organization UBECI, helping street children whose early years and spent working in markets with their families, have a bit of a childhood.
Through the program, the market children work on building fine motor skills, communication abilities, team work, leadership and as they get older, formal education. What UBECI does for these kids is amazing. The dedication of the UBECI team towards improving the lives of Quito’s children is infectious. IVHQ, in turn, plays the critical role of supplying the local team with volunteers to help strengthen the program and ultimately, allow the kids to come alive.
The following is not about UBECI or IVHQ, but rather about my experience volunteering in Ecuador. I went to understand the controversy surrounding voluntourism myself- to see if it was indeed as negative as some in the industry claim the practice to be. I went thinking I’d come out with a view on the other side. After all, how could any sort of volunteering be bad?
I was wrong. Volunteering, in general, yes is a great practice that can really help change the lives of others. They way I did it, however, I feel did not.
Arriving in Quito late Thursday night, I spent a few hours with my host family before falling soundly asleep. Friday morning I woke up and went into the office to begin volunteering- after which I found out I’d only be doing for a few hours before having to come back from my program orientation. Weekends at UBECI are free for volunteers and so are Mondays so I had the next three days off from the program and used them to explore nearby Otavalo and Quito. On Tuesday I went with the group to the market for the day. Chillogallo is crazy lively. The kind of place tourists don’t go but should if they really want to experience a glimpse of true Ecuador daily life. The day was spent playing, reading and doing activities with about 30-40 kids- exactly what I had come to Ecuador to do. However, the day was marred- I knew on Wednesday I’d only be working a half day again. Though I went to Ecuador to volunteer, I was still on vacation and wanted to see all Quito had to offer. That Thursday, I had a flight booked to the coast for 5 pm, what I had thought when I had booked it would be plenty of time to volunteer for the day before heading to the airport.
Two weeks before I arrived the Quito airport was moved further outside the city, a drive to in traffic (and in Quito there is always traffic) taking two hours. To make my flight I’d have to leave at 1pm. On Thursday, UBECI volunteers at a market an hour outside of Quito in the opposite direction, so again, I would not be able to volunteer.
All in all, my intended weeks worth of volunteering turned into two days, the first of which I spent just figuring out what to do. Instead of feeling like I had actually given back or made a difference, I left the program feeling useless and frustrated. This was not the experience I had flown to Ecuador to do.
Part of it is my fault- I think volunteering is not for everyone and I’m not sure it is for me. When I am somewhere new I want to experience it and venture out on my own. While volunteering, participants usually are not allowed to explore the areas they are working in for safety or other concerns. That makes sense when most volunteers, as they had been at UBECI, were new travelers on their gap year before university. I on the other hand, obviously travel quite a bit and don’t particularly like feeling tethered down. At Chillogallo I desperately wanted to eat my way through the market and venture into it’s nooks and crannies, all of which I was not allowed to do. When participating in a group experience like voluntourism you have to stay with the group and follow the rules. Unfortunately, for me, that’s not the way I like to roll.
Volunteering for a short time is also rough. In only a week one wants to see the destination they are in and also help the cause they came to aid. It is, however, nearly impossible to do both sufficiently. After spending a week in Quito, I feel as if there is so much more of the city I want to explore and so much more I could have done with UBECI.
Short-term voluntourism stints inherently raise social responsibility questions as well, especially when working with children. Kids get attached to volunteers easily and having a rotating group of which every couple weeks or so does not really send the right message to children, whom many of which, already come from broken homes.
I think voluntourism can be good. If one can go for a substantial period of time, or work on a specific project such as building a home through Habitat for Humanity, volunteers can really make a difference. Going for a week and working with children, however, I would not promote or recommend.
Ultimately, I left Quito conflicted. I’m glad I got to experience voluntourism first hand and I know the money given to my host family directly helped them get through the month. At the same time, I would have spent more money traveling around Quito for the week, the benefits of which would have been felt by possibly many more.
Knowing I made life a little easier this month for Marianna, Freddy, Gina and Clara was ultimately worth it. While I’m not sure I will volunteer again, doing a home stay was an experience I will cherish and hopefully get the chance to do again. The friendliness and warmth of the family as they welcomed me into their home (even while their daughter was in the hospital) is something I will not soon forget.