Volunteer Tourism in Wake of Disaster

3.11.11-Breaking news hits the media: a 9.0 earthquake strikes the eastern shores of Tōhoku, Japan. A subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown devastate the prefecture, halts the nation, and grabs the attention of billions around the globe. Over 20,000 people are reported dead and/or missing under the massive amounts of rubble, and we’re reminded about the shear power of the environment.  Natural disasters quintessentially represent the power nature has over us. At little or no warning, the earth can instantly overcome regions of the world. In regards to how we respond to natural disasters, a growing industry, volunteer tourism, has arisen. Technology and globalization has moved the world to assist each other in times of need. Though in this wake of increased humanitarian aid, what have been the effects on how we look at and strive to mitigate catastrophe?


Crisis calls our attention and you can’t look away. 24-hour news surveillance and instantaneous reports bring an event happening on the other side of the globe to the palm of your hands. We attach ourselves to this sort of media and addict ourselves to the nearly identical news articles in search of new information on the tragedy. Technology has brought us to a whole new proximity to the source of devastation and charges people react. Through social media and other news outlets, people now more strongly respond to disaster, calling for change and an urge to personally participate. Individuals now solicit friends to donate, and NGOs call for volunteers, making people feel more involved in the recovery stage. Volunteerism, as such, has become an industry.

The volunteer tourism sector offers many positives and is understandably very popular. People can travel across the world, see new places, and embark on rewarding selfless adventures. Participants see volunteering as win-win situations-they offer free labor and in return receive a sense of self-gratification.  Although the industry itself is not dishonorable, there are negative effects of international volunteerism.

For one, inexperience tends to be quite high among volunteers. The highest rate of volunteers abroad is below 24 years old[1]. This is in part because college students make up a majority of this group. They for one have the time to volunteer, and secondly have access to such programs. Though as a consequence, the core of many volunteer group is comprised of young people who do not necessarily have the skills or expertise to asses and manage projects. Volunteers don’t always know the language of where they’re serving, and their presence can end up being a burden more than asset[2].

The topic of volunteerism is a bit tricky. Here at Duke we love to volunteer. For example, the DukeEngage program sends students around the world on a variety of humanitarian and environmental projects. Though the objective of DukeEngage is to provide an experience rather than a most effectively means of service, many relief organizations work off of this model. It’s Not Just Mud (INJM) for example is an international grassroots NGO based in Japan that recruits international volunteers for its programs. Their projects provided aid after the great East Japan earthquake through a core of international recruits. They cleared rubble, built homes, and helped rebuild the community in northern Japan. There is physical evidence of their contributions, however is this really the best model to provide assistance on? Probably not…

After 3.11, Americans, like myself, saw what was happening in Japan and wanted to volunteer. It was through Facebook campaigns and dramatic live news coverage that lead me to really want to go to the scene, see it for myself, and volunteer. The drive eventually got me to Japan, and I interned with a relief organization for a summer. I appreciate and value the experience I gained through my volunteer work, however I do not believe that I effectively really contributed to the relief effort. My time was appreciated, however the money spent to get me to and live in Japan could have put to better use. Rather if that money was given to a Japanese aid organization to help dispatching local volunteers, more work could have been done.

This is an issue that does not only relate to the 2011 Japanese earthquake, but relates to every natural disaster globally. It is not that volunteer tourism organizations are doing anything inherently bad, it’s rather that they’re selfishly sending volunteers for the purpose of the volunteers’ personal experience. These organizations will not cease to exist, however it is important to consider the gains and losses attained when dispatching a volunteer from abroad. When disaster strikes in the future, how will you support the cause?




  1. lpk4@duke.edu

    This is an interesting take on volunteer tourism that I hadn’t previously thought about. In response to your point about the fact that the money used to get you to Japan could have been put to better use, although I agree with you, do you think that you would have actually donated that much money to a relief program? Although it is a great idea, I think that most people are much more willing to spend money on a plane ticket and living accommodations than writing a check of the equivalent amount to a relief organization. Most people that are interested in helping a cause tend to write checks for smaller amounts, or are willing to support the cause in ways that are not financial. This is unfortunate because financial contributions are usually what is most needed when a disaster occurs, however that being said, if one offered to write a small check or volunteer their time, I think that volunteering their time the better option.

  2. ham14@duke.edu

    Something that I think is also important to note about volunteer tourism is the environmental impact. In many cases the disasters are linked to global warming and scientists think that events are becoming more and more extreme. Despite this, volunteers fly in from all over the world and these plane rides generate a fairly large carbon footprint which in a sense just exacerbates the problem that they are responding to. I know there are many other things to take into consideration, but from a purely environmental standpoint, it almost makes more sense just to donate money.

  3. Max Orenstein

    From the purely environmental standpoint, it may make more sense to simply donate, and I think efficiency is at the core of the problem you discuss. How efficiently can you spend your money to help others? What percentage of the money and time you give ends up helping others?

    The idea that people are less likely to donate as much money as they are willing to spend to get to a disaster area is interesting. In a way, people are paying for the experience. Selfish, maybe, but I would highlight the importance of such an experience. Despite its inefficiencies, I would argue that volunteer work makes problems tangible and meaningful. I believe many people abstain from helping with environmental issues because they do not see or greatly feel the effects.
    Volunteering helps connect you with the environment, makes the problem real, and the experience influences the decisions of others you communicate with. Its your money, spend it as you may, we should be grateful for any contribution.

  4. lim9@duke.edu

    Interesting topic for sure. My biggest question is how much of the inefficiency and ineffectiveness you talk about inherent to volunteer tourism is due to the inexperience of volunteers and how much is it due to inefficiency of the NGO? NGO’s are generally very well meaning and honestly trying to do good in the communities they are serving, however I think too often NGO’s are too focused on their own goals of being able to say they have helped x amount of people today, rather than addressing issues from a more structural view point to create long lasting change.

    Furthermore, though the organization you mentioned was based in Japan where the disaster took place, there are plenty of NGO’s that seek out disasters in other countries. These organizations rush to help out, providing water, food and shelter for natural disaster victims in the immediate aftermath. But, once the next disaster strikes somewhere else, many of the organizations leave, without having contributed to making the first country any more resilient and capable of recovering from the next disaster.

    I don’t think its an inherently bad thing for people to want to volunteer in other countries. However, I really like the way you discussed the issue critically. I just wonder if this sort of issue should be addressed more at an organizational level, than at an individual level.

  5. Patrick Hunnicutt

    This is definitely a hot and contentious topic, and–as far as volunteerism goes–is extremely relevant to many programs at Duke (DukeEngage, Duke Immerse, etc.). I wouldn’t goes as far as saying that these volunteer programs should be cancelled–as I myself participated in DukeEngage and will admit that it holds value that justifies its environmental impact–but I think that it is important to recognize and address the carbon footprint of these programs. I do know that DukeEngage allows you to use the remainder of your stipend to offset the carbon footprint created by your air travel, and this is a step in the right direction.

    I’d also like to elaborate on the environmental burden many volunteer organizations generate that ham14 mentioned. I think that is also important to recognize the environmental burden created by the presence of international aid organizations. Obviously, aid organizations need to be present and active in the event of any natural disaster to provide assistance and technical expertise, but I think that the environmental impact of these organizations must be addressed. This concern is also present in regards to the role played by foreign aid in funding economic development: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/63431/richard-n-cooper/greening-aid-understanding-the-environmental-impact-of-developme.

  6. jmr63@duke.edu

    I really appreciated your insights because I previously did not consider abroad volunteerism to be an industry. I agree with your sentiment that the money you spent on travel would have been better invested in resources and materials to help victims. However, from a moral perspective, we can’t always think in ways that will yield the largest bang for our buck. If people began to dismiss volunteer trips in lieu of donating money to aid, we miss out on an important part of being human- spreading compassion. As a participant in DukeEngage, sometimes I did feel as if my efforts would have been better spent elsewhere. But looking back on my entire experience, I have acquired a wealth of knowledge that I would not have gained doing something else. I totally agree that we need to reevaluate the purpose for volunteering and possibly find different tasks to focus on. I know that some organizations actually have a problem with having too many volunteers and in those cases, some of the tasks can become meaningless and a waste of time. I appreciate that your article pushed me to think ethically about my volunteering and I will continue to evaluate if what I am doing is actually contributing to a relief effort.
    -Julie Rohde

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