Voluntourism talk: Are you doing more harm than good?

Sasha Weilbaker, Staff Writer

Jacob Taddy and Pippa Biddle came to campus on Oct. 27 to give a talk on“voluntourism” to the student body. Taddy is the co-founder and director of Onwards, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting poverty through travel and development. Biddle is a writer who focuses on the global volunteer economy and the impact of travel on international communities.

The talk, entitled “The Problem with (and Solution to) Voluntourism: Privilege, Power, and the Place of the Volunteer in an Increasingly Globalized World,” highlighted problems with voluntourism as an industry and provided a checklist for people to consider before traveling.

Taddy and Biddle defined voluntourism as “any combination of unskilled, short-term volunteer work and travel,” typically performed in developing countries by people from more developed regions. Both Taddy and Biddle have participated in voluntourism trips, each sharing stories about how their work actually did more harm than good to communities in need. As a result of these experiences, Taddy and Biddle became involved in educating the public on voluntourism and the steps that a person looking to volunteer can take to maximize the assistance they provide through their efforts.

“It made me realize that individuals and organizations must invest more time and effort into understanding community dynamics in order to make a real difference volunteering,” Cooper Josephs ’17 said. Josephs went on to say that underlying problems in agriculture, education, and the economy can pose bigger threats to a community’s well-being than the issues that volunteers typically focus on.

Taddy and Biddle presented a list of questions potential volunteers should ask themselves before volunteering both domestically and abroad, the most important ones being, “Are you listening to the community in a meaningful way?” and “Is the community invested in your effort?”

“I left the talk feeling somewhat helpless and regretful of my past experiences. It’s an important message—to spend your money locally, to benefit small businesses, and stimulate the local economy,” Caitlin Deardorff ’17 said.

Biddle ended the presentation by talking about learning while abroad.

“It challenges people to hold education to a higher level,” Biddle said.

She feels that service learning hasn’t caught on as much as it should, and Biddle observed from her experience as a recent Columbia undergraduate that many students don’t feel as though they have to learn while outside of a classroom setting. However, Biddle hopes to promote the opposite mentality: real-world learning can be more valuable than classroom learning, and travel is the perfect opportunity to foster intellectual and emotional growth.

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