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?