Sarita Barton was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and earned her PhD in social work at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis in 2017. Sarita came to WashU to research international social development with an emphasis on community impacts from international volunteer service. Her research projects focused on host community and host organization evaluations of international volunteers. “Being a part of the McDonnell Academy has been a such a wonderful experience for me. I’ve learned so much and made friends from around the world.”
Sarita received her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Yale, where she also did cheerleading and served as a mentor for at-risk youth. Sarita spent two years in the Peace Corps in Madagascar working as an English teacher and in community development. After spending one year teaching English in Japan, Sarita received her MSW from the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare.
The Value of International Volunteer Tourism
Several opinion pieces have appeared recently on National Public Radio, the New York Times, and other prominent academic blogs questioning the value of international volunteer efforts. Most focus on short-term programs that cater to the desires of young, relatively affluent, Westerners who want to both travel and serve altruistically. Such schemes, known as volunteer tourism, have come under significant fire. They’ve been criticized for encouraging narcissism in the volunteers, for fostering dependency in host communities, or for being little more than “poverty tourism.” And, behind each piece, lies the underlying question of “What’s the point?” If volunteer tourism is so damaging, if it is so ineffective, why bother?
That question can be resolved fairly easily from the perspective of benefits to volunteers. Research shows that they are likely to gain from the experience in skill development and personal maturity. Despite the cost of time and money, volunteers tend to emerge from their experience abroad with more open minds and better prepared for their futures. For host community members, however, the answer is more elusive. Evidence supporting the effectiveness of international volunteer tourism is thin on the ground. Few researchers are in the field, and what studies they have done are often limited in scope. So, it is difficult to say definitively why community members in developing countries would want to involve themselves with international volunteer schemes. But, they do.
Perhaps, then, instead of focusing on the drawbacks of volunteer tourism it would be more productive to find the advantages. Research on tourism tells us that locals will support an influx of tourists into their community, but it often depends on the balance of locally relevant costs and benefits. Critics of volunteer tourism have been calculating its social costs using their own values. But, it is narrow-minded to assume that their principles are universal. To Westerners, simply because a particular international volunteer tourism program does not appear to help hosting communities, does not mean that it lacks worth in the eyes of those community members.
As previously stated,
few studies have been done on the local perspective of international volunteer tourism, but those that have been conducted often show that community members enjoy having tourists in their environment. It allows them an opportunity to show their culture, expand their cultural experiences, and it increases their sense of agency. Moreover, it often shows them that they have skills many of the relatively affluent, educated and Western volunteer tourists do not —
which can have a positive effect on self-esteem.
None of this is to say that there are never drawbacks or risks to international volunteer tourism schemes. Rather it is to expand the debate, and to emphasize that the voices of all stakeholders should be included. The ultimate significance of volunteer tourism remains to be seen, but it should not be decided using only the Western point-of-view.