Going abroad and helping to dig a water well, build an orphanage, or teach English to local kids. Sounds noble, right? Maybe even heroic? Unfortunately, while ‘voluntourism’ is becoming more and more popular, it often does more damage than good. 

Voluntourism is a clever contraction of the words ‘volunteering’ and ‘tourism’. It describes a trend in which people travel to developing countries to do volunteer work. These do-gooders typically have good intentions. They aim to personally contribute to the development of a community. Whereas these journeys were once only taken by religious groups, we now see lots of variety in those who go abroad to ‘give back’. Youth, retirees, schools and companies, it seems as if volunteering abroad is now as common and popular as going on holiday.

What is wrong with voluntourism?

Along with the increasing demand for volunteer trips abroad has come an increase in the number of agencies arranging such trips. These trips and the accompanying marketing strategies are customised to specific target groups, such as adolescents, companies, and retirees. A quick scroll through such an organisation’s website will teach you that volunteering abroad is not cheap. It is not uncommon to pay over 1000 Euros for a one-week trip. On top of that, volunteers are usually expected to pay for all expenses, such as plane tickets, accommodation and food, themselves. In some cases, they are even expected to bring a donation to the NGO they are working with, money that they have raised through family and friends.

The adverse effects of money and free labour

Some problems that arise from voluntourism come forth from organisations that offer volunteering trips with the sole aim of making money, not caring whether the effects of these trips are good or bad. Many local organisations do not have the resources to create a volunteer project. Therefore, they have to rely on these big international companies to make volunteers come to their project. These companies make large profits from the fees they charge to volunteers. Meanwhile, the local organisations, which do all of the heavy lifting, receive only a small share of these fees. Because of the vast amounts of money that volunteers are willing to pay and the dependency of local NGOs, voluntourism has become quite a lucrative industry for voluntourism companies.

Additionally, both local NGOs and the providers of volunteering trips in a way profit from the unfortunate situation that local communities are in. This can create an incentive to sustain this situation. For example, a story of being a young girl being forced into sex trade in Cambodia turned out to be made up to raise donations for a local NGO. Moreover, many people who have been in Asia will have heard stories about orphanages where children are not actually orphans. These children are ripped from their parents and put in orphanages, only to be used as a tourist attraction. When tourists visit such orphanages, they feel sorry for the children and donate money, food and toys. Unfortunately, these donations never reach the children, but instead, end up in the hand of the orphanage’s criminal management.  

Moreover, as local organisations receive money for hosting volunteers on short-term projects, there is no incentive to plan effective long-term projects. Instead, badly-planned and ineffective projects are maintained, just because it attracts foreign volunteers and brings some money in the bank. To make matters worse, usually, there is no money to continue these projects once volunteers leave. Within months, the buildings that volunteers worked so hard on to build are crumbling. Before you know it, a new group of volunteers will be fixing these buildings, thinking they are making a real change for the community.   

Voluntourism might also have further negative impact on communities. For example, it might take away jobs from people that need it more. After all, why pay for labour, if you can have volunteers who work for free and pay you for it? Moreover, local communities might come to rely on help from volunteers. For example, during several trips to Ghanian to volunteer as a doctor, Lauren Kascak found out that Ghanian locals were less likely to take health insurance. Instead, they relied on international medical volunteers to take care of their medical problems.

Who actually benefits?

Another point of concern is that organisations do not require volunteers to have a particular set of skills and experiences to work on projects in developing countries. You don’t have any experience teaching to children? Doesn’t matter, you can still teach English to children in Cambodia. And even if you have never built anything in your life, you can still build a health centre in Tanzania. The policy often seems to be ‘as long as you pay, you can come and volunteer’.  

Because of their short stay and inexperience, volunteers often do more harm than good. Take the example of teaching English to local children. These projects are popular, as everyone likes to work with kids and pictures with these children will look great on social media. But what is the value of teaching English to local kids if you do not speak the local language? And what is worse, these children meet a different volunteer every few weeks. They play together and take pictures, the children get attached, and then suddenly the volunteer leaves. Because of short-term volunteers, these children get stuck in a pattern of abandonment, causing psychological harm.

Unfortunately, the truth is that voluntourism is aimed at creating a pleasant and delusional experience for the volunteer, not to do some actual good for the locals that live in poverty. 

All of this begs the question: who actually benefits from voluntourism? Is it the local population or the volunteer? The answer clearly is the volunteer. If you really want to do some good, it is better to volunteer in your own country. Or better yet, donate the money otherwise spent on the volunteering trip to an NGO. Unfortunately, the truth is that voluntourism is aimed at creating a pleasant and delusional experience for the volunteer, not to do some actual good for the locals that live in poverty. 

Voluntourism and the image of developing countries and poverty

Another main issue with voluntourism is that it creates the illusion that there is a quick fix for the problems in developing countries. It makes it look like good intentions are all that is needed to eradicate poverty. But in reality, it is not that simple. Poverty is a complex issue, influenced by hundreds of other factors, such as geography, culture and social factors. Framing the solution to poverty as an issue of intentions derails the discussion around poverty and what we can do about it. 

Another issue to consider is the image that is shaped by the many pictures that are usually posted on social media during these trips. You’ll see many images of young volunteers posing with children and of locals living their daily lives. These pictures tend to enforce the stereotype of poverty in developing countries, as if that is all they are. But in fact, they are so much more. Moreover, it reduces locals to an image of poverty, without looking at their background, skills or experiences. Not even to mention the privacy issues that arise from posting pictures of local children and adults without their consent.

Another hard question to ask ourselves is if voluntourism is not just another form of post-colonialism. For decades the west has unrightfully been in the centre of the narrative of African and Asian countries. Through voluntourism, it has now unrightfully become the centre of the narrative around these countries’ development. Moreover, voluntourism is based on the assumption that the help of Western people is automatically helpful, even if volunteers often have no proper background or experience. 

Isn’t there anything good about voluntourism?

All of this might make you think that there is nothing positive about voluntourism, but there is. For example, hosting short-term volunteers may bring in some hard-needed cash for local NGOs to actually do some good for their projects. Moreover, volunteers take pictures which they post on social media and tell their friends and family about their experiences. This is free marketing for NGOs and might lead to more donations.  

Another positive effect of voluntourism is that it brings tourists to remote rural communities. Here, volunteers spend money on food and other daily necessities. This money directly benefits locals and the local community. 

And finally, the experience of travelling and volunteering in an environment so fundamentally different from our own often has a lasting impact. It expands our worlds and thereby makes us well-rounded and more tolerant and sensitive to others.  

How to be better

Unfortunately, the small positive effects of volunteering abroad do not weight up against its adverse effects. So, how can we change voluntourism, so the work of volunteers has the positive and sustainable impact that is intended?

Whereas critics first pointed toward volunteers as the responsible ones in making a change, others now say that this responsibility lies with the industry. The companies that organise volunteering trips should ensure that these trips actually have a positive and lasting effect on local communities. As a positive sign, guidelines for responsible and sustainable travel have been developed recently. However, these guidelines are optional and have not been implemented consequently throughout the industry. A system for accountability is needed in order to ensure that companies keep up with these guidelines.  

However, as long as there is a demand for volunteering trips from people who are uninformed about or uninterested in the consequences of their trip, there will be companies offering such trips. Therefore, much of the responsibility of changing this industry lies with volunteers. So, if you are looking to volunteer abroad, research where your money is going. How does the organisation spend your money? How much of it goes to the local organisation in question? Does the travel organisation follow standards of responsible and sustainable travel? How long has this company been working with this local organisation, and what kind of projects have they completed?  

Moreover, you should only consider volunteering when you have something real to offer and if you are available for an extended period of time. Only then can you make a valuable contribution and have a real and lasting impact. If you have the skills and time, consider volunteering with, for example, the EU Aid Volunteer Programme or with United Nations Volunteers. And if you decide to volunteer abroad, make sure to spend time with locals. Talk with them and really listen to what they are saying. Learn from them and their lives, and ask questions.

But, most importantly, be honest with yourself about the reason you are travelling. Is it just to have pictures with the little kids in front of the school you just build? Just to put the project on your resume? Or do you actually want to do some good? If that is the case, is this really the best way to do it? Why not volunteer in your own country? Or donate the money to a well-researched organisation?

Want to read more about sustainable volunteering and travelling? Check out this article about San Jose Calderas in Guatemala.