Opinion: “Voluntourism” is a minefield. Consider WWOOF to navigate it.

Americans volunteering abroad tends to reinforce the same gimmicky tropes: there’s the group of teenagers building orphanages and finding Jesus, the shameless PR stunts put on by the US heralding development, the environmental projects pinky-swearing they’re saving the *insert endangered animal here* and not just a glorified petting zoo… the list could go on. The ethical implications of this “voluntourism” are often questionable, at best, and an article published in the International Journal of Tourism Research identifies four main potential negative effects of volunteer tourism. By avoiding these challenges, the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network is a good option for students to support sustainable goals and travel inexpensively while avoiding the harmful effects of voluntourism.

WWOOF facilitates a simple exchange: volunteers do farm work (usually around 20 hours per week), and the host provides room and board. Over 50 years old and constituted by over 12,000 hosts, its self-described aims are to “create a network within the ecological movement; promote, inform and educate about agro-ecological farming and sustainability, present ecological methods as viable alternatives, [and] promote solidarity between people as well as an ethical economy.” But does WWOOF hold up as ethical volunteer work?

In the article entitled “The Possible Negative Effects of Volunteer Tourism,” four concerning impacts are identified. First, volunteer programs often perpetuate “a neglect of locals’ desires, caused by a lack of local involvement.” American companies may interfere in communities abroad to “help” while focusing on private profit. One example is a sea turtle conservation group who offers seven day trips for about $1900 per person. This includes meals, lodging, activities, and in-country transport, funneling visitors’ dollars back to an American company instead of the local tourism sector. Further, the author identifies a study on sea turtle conservation where the researcher “discovered that poaching provided a livelihood for some locals, and turtle products were sold by various market stallholders.” Local involvement in volunteer projects is key to avoiding negative consequences, and WWOOF is completely based on local farmers. Locals’ desires dictate the work done by volunteers in this program, as they decide all task delegation on their own farms to support sustainability and teach volunteers about ecological practices.

The second issue is “the completion of unsatisfactory work, caused by volunteers’ lack of skills.” Other volunteer programs prioritize projects with a quick tangible result, like construction projects. Volunteers who’ve never picked up a hammer rapidly construct a building, get a warm fuzzy feeling, then pack up and fly home. In contrast, WWOOF allows hosts to assign tasks that are labor intensive but may be quickly learned, like weeding the garden, watering the animals, milking the goat, etc. Additionally, volunteers are connected to hosts through mutual communication. Farms may make judgements based on volunteers’ profiles describing their past work experience.

Third, the article points out “a decrease in employment opportunities and a promotion of dependency, caused by the presence of volunteer labor.” Though a risk for all volunteer programs, WWOOF avoids this trap by focusing on more than creating a free labor source. The promotion of sustainable practices, education, and networking within the ecological movement are all goals of the organization that are just as, if not more important, than providing volunteer help for organic farmers. The benefits of WWOOF for farmers, like knowledge exchange and participating in a community holding shared values and goals, are greater than simple labor. WWOOF does not emphasize the labor aspect and therefore avoids dependency situations, favoring instead the process of teaching people and creating connections.

Finally, “a reinforcement of conceptualisations of the ‘other’ and rationalizations of poverty, caused by the intercultural experience.” The article shows an example of this in how other programs are pitched to volunteers, writing how another researcher “points out that the volunteer tourism organizations often focus on the ‘need’ within host communities, as this need is essential if a project is to be worthwhile.” In WWOOF situations, however, host farms assume the role of the experts and also provide for the volunteers. The latter is described as “helping hands to its hosts” who are being given the opportunity to learn skills and experience organic farming. The relationship between host farms and WWOOFers avoids the reinforcement of differences described, and it focuses instead on shared values through environmentalism.

Volunteering abroad clearly has issues, too often practiced as a lucrative scheme for companies to take money from self-righteous Americans in the name of real world issues. Yet in navigating the murky expanse of volunteering opportunities, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) provides a promising way through.

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