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

Dec 16, 2022

BY: Jesse Larsen

A note from WWOOF UK: while the author of this piece is a member of WWOOF USA, we believe that these sentiments are relevant for volunteers hoping to make a positive contribution anywhere in the world.

WWOOFing in Costa Rica

As traveling becomes more popular and accessible, a sense of global citizenship has spread in conjunction. This notion has contributed to the development of volunteering organisations that aim to reduce world inequalities. They call on individuals from the Global North to travel abroad and work on humanitarian projects, often creating a profitable business out of it. However, 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 consequences, 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 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 a private foreign 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. 

Chickens on a farm in Costa Rica

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 organisation 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 emphasise the labor aspect and therefore avoids dependency situations, favouring instead the process of teaching people and creating connections. 

Finally, “a reinforcement of conceptualisations of the ‘other’ and rationalisations 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 organisations 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. 

I volunteered with the goals of experiencing a new environment, improving my Spanish language skills, and learning about the global movement towards organic agriculture. A friend and I volunteered together at a farm hosted by a mother and her two daughters. I learned something new every day: the benefits of eliminating pesticide use in the garden, uses for various native plants, the proper preparation of the national dish gallo pinto… the list goes on. My hosts were passionate and dedicated to the organic agriculture movement, and as one of the first volunteers to visit their farm, I was happy to contribute to their routine and support their vision of expanding the farm to host future volunteers, so that in turn, others may learn like I did. I came home with more than just knowledge about farming or improved Spanish fluency; I gained incredible memories and connections as we celebrated a family relative’s birthday together and joked around with the neighbours while selling vegetables in the market. 

Farmers’ market in Costa Rica

Volunteering abroad clearly has shortcomings, too often practiced as a lucrative scheme for companies to take money from self-righteous individuals 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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