THE BLOG
01/06/2015 01:47 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2015

I Went to Africa and All I Got Was this New Profile Picture

FYI: $3,295 (not including airfare) will buy you 16 days in Ghana going on a safari, teaching English to orphans, and exploring the beaches. With $4,295, you can purchase 25 days exploring rural villages and working on construction projects in Thailand. Such is the industry of voluntourism, the practice of tourism where travelers participate in voluntary work and community service on their trip.

Voluntourism has been growing increasingly popular too. It is the fastest growing segment of the tourist industry, according to Kristina Georgieva, a director at the World Bank.

It seems like a win-win situation, doesn't it? The locals get new houses or schools, and you get a sense of fulfillment qualified by pictures with cute indigenous children -- all in a convenient time frame. Unfortunately, voluntourism is an incredibly problematic practice at both an individual and institutional level.

One of the most fundamental issues is intent. Most times, the experience of voluntourism is focused on the volunteer, not the people the volunteer serves.

As said by Roger O' Halloran, the director of the NGO, PALMS, "It's all about the volunteer, with the pretense of helping someone, and I don't buy it." Participants, usually Westerners, join these trips with the intention of saving those less fortunate, and becoming a better person by doing this. Take a look at any number of accounts of time spent volunteering abroad -- the focus again and again returns to the participant; how it "changed" them, how they "found themselves", how they are affected by the profound difference they made. Very rarely is the motivating factor to help others its intrinsic value.

The idea that low-income people in other countries need to be saved by us is a lingering remnant of Western colonialism and a product of the white savior complex, the notion that we, as Westerners, are the solution to the problems of underdeveloped nations. This is why an industry exists where teenagers lacking any form of pertinent experience are sent abroad to target the staggeringly complex facets of poverty.

This begs the question though -- do intentions really matter when it comes to volunteering abroad? People argue that the morality of voluntourism simply doesn't carry value if it yields better living conditions for those who need it. Results may sometimes trump intentions, but it turns out that substantial evidence exists which suggests voluntourism is harmful to the communities where it is practiced.

Efforts headed by voluntourism groups aren't usually focused on sustainability or targeted towards the needs of each community. Community projects are often run by a constantly changing crew of volunteers. Projects can be halted if the influx of volunteers stops. Not only do these practices take away potential employment opportunities for local workers, but they also decrease the chances of long-term success for these initiatives since they are not run by community members within minimal outside help. Research by the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at Leeds Metropolitan University aimed to measure the appropriate selection of volunteers, the lasting impact of projects, and the tendency to put the needs of the local community first -- amongst other variables -- within voluntourism-oriented groups. The results indicated a severe lack of these factors within their operations.

Since voluntourism groups typically don't require participants to have experience in the areas they wish to pursue, whether it be construction or teaching, they often don't make effective contributions. Writer Pippa Biddle recalled her high school service trip to Tanzania where, each night, her group's efforts to build a library would be quietly deconstructed and redone by the men each night. Well wishing enthusiasm yields little in the way of results when it is not paired with skills.

Another adverse affect of voluntourism can be seen in orphanages. Orphanages are a huge target for voluntourism groups. What is a more appealing way of giving back to the world than assisting helpless children of color? It is a solid tear-jerking project and easy pitch to the media, according to Alexia Nestoria, director of a major voluntourism group. This focus on orphanages, however, has resulted in a disturbing trend. Cambodia, South Africa, and Ghana have witnessed a rapid increase in unregistered domestic orphanages. In Cambodia, only 28 percent of children in orphanages are missing both parents, and in Ghana, 90 percent of 4500 orphans surveyed had at least one parent. Voluntourism has led to the exploitation of children in an industry that values their destitution.

Voluntourism is a damaging industry, but it is important to remember that it is not the only way for people to get involved. There are hundreds of organizations which work to provide sustainable, effective, locally based aid to communities in need. The Guardian offers an excellent guide to choosing a program that keeps all of this in mind.