The Student News Site of Chatham University


The Student News Site of Chatham University


The Student News Site of Chatham University


Chatham almuna speaks about the pitfalls of “voluntourism”

On Thursday, November 6, Chatham alumna and current University of Pittsburgh employee Holly Hickling came to Chatham University to share her presentation “Voluntourism: The Pitfalls of Short Term Voluntary Service Overseas and How to Avoid Causing Harm.”

The lecture was held in the Chatham’s Founder’s Room in the James Laughlin Music Hall. The intimate setting served as the perfect venue for the approximately 20 people in attendance, including several professors who taught Hickling during her time at Chatham.

At 11:30 a.m., after some initial technical difficulties, the event began with an introduction from Dr. Jean-Jacques Sène, Global Focus coordinator at Chatham University.

“This is really my honor to introduce Hickling,” he said, as he began to give a background of her accomplishments, including graduating from Chatham with a math major and music minor, spending five years doing public health studies abroad, and currently serving as the Academic Community Engagement Advisor at the University of Pittsburgh Honors College.

“I come from the humanities,” Sène said, “but I bow very low to the fields of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math].”

After a round of applause Hickling took the floor and quickly endeared herself to the audience by joking about how the last time she spoke at Chatham only three people came to hear her, saying, “I might just have this smile on my face the whole time.”

Quite fittingly, given that this is Chatham’s Global Focus Year of Southern Africa, much of Hickling’s experience in long term international aid work was in the Southern African nation of Zambia.

Hickling began her presentation by speaking about her several years doing long term public health studies there, as well as two short-term volunteer trips she took to Guatemala and Costa Rica.

In regards to her shorter trips, she said that despite having an impact on her, they did not really help the locals in a long term way.

The trips were, “life changing for me…not for the people I was going out there to help.”

She went on to define voluntourism as, “a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.”

According to her, short-term volunteer programs abroad often have little impact, and the impact that they do have does not last after the volunteers leave. Also, she addressed the fact that most of the work done by volunteers could be done by locals, which would be more beneficial given that rampant unemployment in developing nations.

“If you take a team of people from America to go build a house in Zambia, you could build 70 houses, or pay a teacher’s salary for a year,” she said.

This became even more apparent when she mentioned that each year there are about 1.6 million volunteer tourists, and they pay a total of about 2 billion dollars to take their volunteer trips.

In addition to simply not being very effective, she went on to say that voluntourism can even be harmful.

“Giving things away can create dependency or hurt local markets,” she said. Also volunteers are often poorly trained, specifically in working with refugees.

Additionally, she pointed out that voluntourism perpetuates an attitude of cultural imperialism.

Above all else, she insisted that people should avoid volunteering at orphanages.  According to her, studies have shown that they are bad for children’s physical and mental health and are, “havens for physical and sexual abuse,” yet people who run orphanages often take children who have parents away from their homes and put them in orphanages that are purposely kept in bad condition in order to make money from volunteers.

“They buy babies,” Sène said, affirming her point.

Finally, she mentioned that international travel in general is bad for the environment, citing the high carbon emissions involved in it.

Towards the end of her presentation, Hickling made the point that if people are still compelled to go abroad, they should do their research, support ongoing efforts that are working well, seek local voices, go with an open mind, recognize privilege and power dynamics, and stay for a longer period of time.

In closing she discussed the fact that many of the problems that are faced in developing nations also exist in America saying, “Do you want to help people? Help people in Pittsburgh!”

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