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Does Voluntourism Do More Harm Than Good?

Amy Bergen

children having a lesson in a run-down school

While volunteers generally have good intentions, intent doesn’t necessarily equal impact. The controversial practice of "voluntourism" has generated a lot of buzz in the social-impact space over the years. You may have heard this term if you’re considering a volunteer stint in another country or if your organization supports overseas volunteer work.

What is voluntourism?

According to writer and experienced social-impact worker Pippa Biddle, voluntourism began when international travelers in the 1990s wanted more authenticity than they were getting from packaged tours. Organizations started sponsoring short trips where volunteers could take a week or two and help out in medical clinics, teach in schools, or construct buildings. By 2008 the "voluntourist" market brought in an annual $2 billion.

Voluntourism differs from volunteering in specific ways. Usually voluntourists will pay for their trips through an agency. These agencies might be nonprofit or for-profit organizations, and they often focus on travel rather than international development.

The most crucial difference, however, is that voluntourism has a tendency to focus on the needs of the participant as a customer. Sightseeing excursions and photo opportunities are part of the package. And you don’t generally need special skills or background training for any service projects. Unlike a grassroots volunteer initiative that focuses on long-term community outcomes, most organizations that specialize in voluntourism want their clients to feel they’ve made a difference over a relatively short period of time (sometimes, just a week).

How are local communities affected?

You may feel like you're helping residents, but the reality is complicated. On construction projects, for example, volunteers replace local workers who could potentially use the employment and have a greater sense of investment in the community. And unless you’re trained in the skill you’re practicing, it’s possible your involvement will hinder more than help. Biddle recalls a high school trip to Tanzania where local bricklayers dismantled and rebuilt the student volunteers’ construction work each night.

Even if voluntourists are experts in their respective field, they typically don’t stay more than a few weeks. Local organizations need to plan on long-term sustainability; if you take a two-month teaching job, the students still need a qualified, well-paid teacher after you leave.

Volunteers who work with children can have a particularly negative impact in the long run. Children may get attached to friendly faces who are constantly coming and going. Greater awareness of the damage done by "orphan tourism"—many of the children in orphanages have living parents—has led Australia and the United Kingdom to consider banning these types of tours.

In a broader sense, voluntourism doesn’t address the complex root causes of community problems. You might spend thousands on a voluntourist excursion, but local nonprofits won’t see much of the cash. Instead the money goes to the expenses and profits of the tourist organization that brought you there. And the marketing of these trips may lead volunteers to think there are quick fixes to longstanding structural economic inequalities.

Is ethical voluntourism possible?

Can you still combine travel with making a positive impact? The key is to see yourself as a partner to the community and to think of their needs, not your own.

Social entrepreneur Daniela Papi-Thornton says brief volunteer stints can be productive if three conditions are met:

  • The volunteer has specific skills the local organization requires. These skills can range from language interpreting to medical or dental expertise, but they go beyond desire and free time.
  • The volunteer is flexible and willing to adapt, even if they’re asked to do work they didn’t anticipate.
  • The volunteer has cross-cultural communication experience.

Often the most effective work a short-term volunteer can do is to support the local staff. Volunteers in child-centered charities, for instance, may focus on helping the caregivers rather than working with the children. Or you may be training residents to staff a clinic or school after you’re gone. But long-term commitments—more than three months—are almost always preferable, since most programs take time to really get going, and you’ll need to establish community trust as you would in any new environment.

Ultimately your work should be in the best interest of the community; your own personal growth and career goals can play a role, but they aren’t top priority. If local residents can fill a position or make a contribution, they should take the lead.

And you should research the country and region before getting on a plane. The more you know about local history, economy, politics, and systemic challenges, the more you can help communities empower themselves.

What to consider before volunteering abroad

First determine your main goal. If you want to travel and learn about a new place, plan a recreational trip, which can be a starting point for productive volunteer work in the future. If you feel passionate about a certain country or initiative, consider donating to a local organization.

Next, decide how long you’re willing and able to commit to volunteering. Many reputable volunteer programs require a minimum commitment of two to three months.

Then think about the skills you’ll bring to the table. Just as you wouldn’t apply for a paid position without some relevant experience, don’t assume a volunteer gig will let you substitute enthusiasm for expertise. This infographic will give you a better idea of whether to sign up or stay home.

Other questions to ask yourself include:

  • Are you working with an established organization in your host country or starting a new one? If you’re going through an established agency, is it reputable? The International Volunteer Programs Association and Volunteer Fairly are two good watchdog organizations to start your research.
  • What contacts will you have in the local community?
  • Will you need to raise funds for your travel or living expenses?
  • Does the project you’ll be working on have a plan for long-term sustainability?
  • Are you prepared to do whatever work is required, even if it’s not what you expected?
  • How will the results of the project be measured?

More questions will probably emerge, especially with fledgling initiatives. Ultimately you’ll be part of a larger plan that will improve the life of community members long after you go back home. Check out our guide for mid-career professional volunteers as a jumping-off point for opportunities abroad. 

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Have you participated on a voluntourism mission? Share your experience with us.

Amy Bergen

Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.

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