Rethinking The Moral Economy

Voluntourism: it’s the newest, hottest craze sweeping through first-world countries. According to Projects Abroad, the largest international volunteer abroad program, voluntourism is defined as engaging in “meaningful volunteer work while also participating in tourism…to get the best of both worlds”. It’s an appealing option to many people in developed nations, more than 1.6 million of whom travel to exotic countries such as the Philippines, India, and Thailand and give their money to a $2 billion USD industry annually, according to NPR. While voluntourism is generally painted in a positive light, there are many drawbacks to consider. To analyze what voluntourism means to different people, there are three groups affected by this popular trend: the local, developing communities, voluntourist companies, and the voluntourists themselves.

Despite the good intentions of the voluntourists, the voluntourist model often ignores questions surrounding the stability of their work and the growth of the local economy. Voluntourists serving a community perform a range of tasks, from doing farm work, to building up infrastructure, to teaching English. Because voluntourists only stay in a community for a short period of time, their work tends to be of inferior quality and unsustainable without maintenance in the long term. Inexperienced volunteers build shoddy structures and produce subpar farm yields. Volunteer English teachers are detrimental to a child’s learning when the teachers themselves are changing every week.

It is difficult to quantify the value lost as a result of an inexperienced and unstable work force, but these all represent inefficiencies in the system. Aid programs that provide free products, emanating the TOMS One-for-One model, have historically cut into the local economy; free labor likely has a similar effect, as free products and volunteer labor crowds out local products and laborers. The constant influx of volunteers crowds out local competition for English teachers, farm laborers, and construction workers, dampening local economic growth. While voluntourism may ultimately leave a net good in the local economy, growth could be far more streamlined through a more efficient charity model.  It is unlikely, however, that developing communities would purposefully cut off a supply of free labor, and thus the burden of correcting the efficiency loss fall to a different party: the voluntourist companies.

The government could discourage a voluntourism market by implementing taxes on these companies. Economic measures to curtail voluntourist companies, however, are all likely to fail. There will always be loopholes to jump through, such as filing to become a nonprofit organization, which allows companies to be exempt from certain taxes, while still generating large streams of revenue. Additionally, measures against the companies are infeasible because it would be wildly unpopular to tax something as seemingly altruistic as volunteering. This is a desired market, where both the suppliers and consumers are seemingly better off. It is hard for any government to end voluntourism through economic means simply because the demand for volunteering does exist, and where there’s demand, supply surely follows. To truly reduce the impacts of voluntourism, the third party must be examined: the voluntourists.

The main consideration made when considering the voluntourist is the utility they gain from their labor. When people donate to charity, they know exactly how much impact they have: the number of dollars they put in. But when they put their money into a voluntourist trip, their impact undergoes a distortion of value. It’s possible to put a value on the labor of teaching or construction for a week, but when they visit developing nations, they feel like they’re making more of a difference than the products of their labor would actually suggest: they provide human connection, encouragement, and hope – values that are not as easily quantifiable. Human connection, encouragement, and hope are all valuable to the community, but those can also be achieved through a charity donation supporting community health workers, who can provide these same qualities with the added benefit of additional training and cultural sensitivity.

Voluntourism represents a mishandling of resources and is essentially the business of compassion sold to voluntourists, but not necessarily the business of growth for the community. When the utility of the voluntourist is not directly related to the needs of the community, a market failure occurs. To change the current system, it is difficult to ask the community to reject aid, or ask the businesses to close; the burden of change falls onto the voluntourists themselves, to help recognize the needs of others above their own.


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