Friday, May 29News For London

The popular culture of voluntourism, self-worth and charity, explained

The culture of sending teenagers to travel and help charities in other countries is booming in the UK and elsewhere. The millennial approach by parents to help their kids develop self-worth seems to be one reason why. 

For most teenagers in the UK, volunteering opportunities are frequently offered as a part of high school programmes. To be a “volunteer” typically means working for an organisation or cause without getting anything in exchange. From seaside conservation in Fiji to cultural immersion in Cambodia, you may have been encouraged to enrol for a summer trip by your parents or you might have read about how such an experience would help your resume for college applications. But in 1998, an accidental invention of “voluntourism” changed this altogether. 

The term “voluntourism” was first invented by the governor of Nevada who decided to create a new award called “Voluntourism Award”. It was to recognise the people of Nevada who would often take up volunteering positions and made the state a better place for people to enjoy. Later, a group of cause marketers, who help profit-making businesses do some social good used the word to create a new trend.

High-school students posing for a photograph during a forest conservation voluntourism camp.

In simple words, Voluntourism can be defined as a form of international travel where people use their energy and time to help with a social cause like building houses for the local, animal conservation or teaching a language. Unlike traditional volunteering, it gives you more time to explore the place, travel to neighbouring places and have a flexible schedule without any long term commitment. 

In the age of Instagrammable adventures and aesthetic travel, voluntourism can help balance social welfare and leisure. Multiple researches show that teenagers who engage in such programmes develop leadership and communication skills along with cultural sensitivity. It also encourages their busy minds to slow down and embrace nature, cultures and people from different walks of lives. 

Between the age of 13 to 19, the academic life and social pressure to “act like a grown-up” cuts them off from the world out there. During those years, planning an exciting adventure to look forward to can help you navigate through middle school stress and anxiety. Despite the confident appearance of many on the outside, most people in these years have their self-worth hanging low around their knees. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescence, any expression of kindness, no matter how big or small, can make a massive shift in the way we evaluate our self-worth. 

Voluntourism is a good way to jolt out of your comfort zone and overcome your insecurities out in the real world. In terms of safety, most organisations today have a “kind person” policy which promotes a sense of community and kindness. If you are travelling alone, it can protect you from negative experiences on the journey. If you are travelling with friends or family, it ensures that people interact in a friendly way during group events. Whether you suffer from social anxiety or just feel stressed about making big life decisions, a change of place can help. Especially when your travel plans include something that involves meeting new people, getting to know a new culture and lending  a hand to promote a cause you actually believe in.

If you are solely planning to undertake this to boost your resume, there’s nothing wrong with that too. Your experience will teach you social as well as professional skills that can speak for your ability to be a good employee in future. Most companies today look for individuals who are not only qualified but equipped with life skills and have a worldview of their own. Also, if you pick a cause that aligns with the profession you aspire to work in, it can help you gain a competitive advantage over the others. 

Stamps collected from different cities in the world.

Before signing up with any of the organisations which provide such opportunities, it is important to understand how they work. The voluntourism industry is driven by fundraising which is simply the act of asking money for a particular charity. For example, a charity that supports species protection in the Amazon forests would have a programme for teenage students to help them travel and explore the terrain along with a five day camp where they can help secure endangered species. In exchange for the activities and tour, they will charge a small fee. The charity will use that money to do their work on the ground. Also, the programme will attract funding from advertisements and local institutions. They might also make deals with schools by hosting their students once a year in exchange for small fees. It is how these charities manage to survive and thrive. 

Why do you need to know this? This information can help you pick a cause that you are passionate about and an organisation shares the same interest. It will also help you make an informed decision before you travel. 
Recently, the travel industry has come to a virtual standstill as many countries continue to impose nation-wide restrictions as a response to the Coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, this industry contributed US$8.9 trillion to the world economy which accounts for 13.4% of the total GDP. In simpler terms, the ban on travelling has been a massive hit on the financial situation of many countries. 

As thousands of volunteering programmes have cancelled their events ahead of summer, some charities and organisations were forced to stop the social work they do. They are cutting staff and scaling back on projects that help save the environment or educate children in underdeveloped areas. It is fairly understandable that everyone is looking forward to travel after the lockdown restrictions are officially lifted. 

From airlines to restaurants and bars, the wait to get back to normal lingers heavy in the empty streets. But instead of simply travelling for vacation, teenagers would not also benefit from the concept of voluntourism but it will also help NGOs and social organisations reel back from this epidemic.