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Before you run off to do good, it’s worth stopping to consider some ethical basics.

NOBODY DECIDES to travel halfway around the world to spend weeks or months of their life undermining a local community. But voluntourism – like that famous quote about the paving on the road to hell – often comes close. The debate about the practice, like most things in life, is far more ethically nuanced than many organisations facilitating such experiences often let on.

Voluntourism has gained an appeal amongst travelers with a wide range of motivations, time, and skills, from volunteers in organised groups such as the Kiva Fellows to handfuls of backpackers stopping off for a week in Siem Reap. The appeal of wanting to get involved in ‘making things better’ for local groups, orphanages, schools or other projects is the glue that holds many different strains of voluntourism together. And the ground on which fierce debates have raged for a few years already on whether particular flavours of voluntourism are helpful, ethically bankrupt, or simply benign.

If you are intending to do some good on your next journey abroad, you have a responsibility to be aware of some of the practical and ethical questions that you are likely to confront on the way. Although, in the end, how and where you decide to volunteer is ultimately going to be up to you, if you have some degree of dedication to the idea of doing good (you are volunteering after all), then these questions matter.

Let’s start from the top. I want to volunteer at an orphanage…
If your prospective NGO/local partner tells you about going to an orphanage and hugging/playing/otherwise interacting with local children, walk away. Orphanage love programs, while fantastic for pulling at the heart strings of travelers, positively overflow with ethical and practical problems.

In the first instance – and particularly in areas of extreme poverty – foreigners paying money either to operators or to orphanages directly for the privilege of interacting actually serves to create a market for orphans. Yes, that’s right. It can incentivize places to find orphans purely for the purpose of leeching dollars from gullible folk who feel they are helping to fix the facilities/feed the children/do general good.

Orphanage love programs, while fantastic for pulling at the heart strings of travelers, positively overflow with ethical and practical problems.

By way of example, Siem Reap in Cambodia was briefly exposed not too long ago for having orphanages that were actually full of children with real parents. It was cost effective for orphanage-pimps to rent them off their parents for the day so that they could play or perform for gullible tourists for a healthy profit in donations. A quick google search for ‘siem riep orphanage volunteer’ on Google suggests that this sordid market remains well-supplied with the cash of well-intentioned travelers.

Research on fraudulent orphanages (yes, it’s enough of a problem to be researched) suggests that pretty much anywhere that appears to have a proliferation of orphanages should be treated with more than a little suspicion. After the tsunami in Aceh, for example, only 60 in 6,000 – 10,000 minors was found to be truly orphaned (in the sense that they had no close family to foster them and were genuinely in need of institutional care).

None of this is to say that orphans don’t exist, or are rarer than unicorns. It does mean that when arriving in a tourist hotspot and being offered the chance to ‘assist’ at one of a handful (or more) of orphanages, you should be a little cynical.

“OK”, you might ask, “but if an orphanage was legitimate, surely helping out there would be a good idea?”

Sadly, and again according to research, the answer is no. It is emphatically no. And it is ‘no’ for at least two very good reasons.

Firstly, for children growing up in an institutionalized, orphanage-type setting, it is of the utmost importance that children be able to develop a stable, long term attachment to their caregivers. Allowing troops of travelers to come in and hug, play and laugh with the kids every few weeks has precisely the opposite effect. Just as it was useful for you as a child to develop long term, stable bonds with the people who cared for you, so it is important for those children. To take part in orphanage volunteering is to take part in a cycle of creating and abandoning relationships that helps nobody emotionally except you.

Secondly, unless the agency you are volunteering with has done background checks on the lot of you, they are being superbly irresponsible in allowing you carte blanche to enter the institution and interact with the kids. No sane orphanage that has the interests of its children at heart would allow hundreds of complete strangers to play with their children each year. Any that does is failing in their duty of care and should not have you as an accomplice in doing so.

These are just the ethical objections to orphanages, mind you. But it should serve to raise questions that may apply to wider sets of projects regarding children.

OK, so no orphanages. What about a building project in…
Building projects, whether helping to paint murals or erect whole structures in places such as Peru may not be quite as obviously fraught with problems as orphanages, but nevertheless deserve a pause and reflection on your part as participant.

It’s useful, for example, to take a look at how the project is structured. Who are you working with? How are you working with them? Is it part of a larger plan?

spending a hundred dollars in an impoverished community painting the inside of a school is never developmental, no matter what the voluntourism coordinator told you.

While NGOs exist that have an exceptional track record of building useful, useable structures, there are equally as many fly by night operations more concerned with giving you something to do than with actually helping a community. A more ethical project will likely have chosen what it is that they will be working on after consultations with the community they are working in, and it will form part of a larger project plan. A one-library project, while satisfying for those who volunteer to build it, is not development if done in isolation. Equally, spending a hundred dollars in an impoverished community painting the inside of a school is never developmental, no matter what the voluntourism coordinator told you.

Check that your partner NGO, or their partner, has a development plan for the community. One in which the work you will be doing is a meaningful contribution. And check that the long term plan that they have for a community’s development sounds legit. Lots of talk about rebuilding community spirit probably means that there isn’t one. A long term plan centered on water and sanitation, housing and infrastructure probably means that someone has put a great deal more thought into it.

It can be as simple as contacting your prospective voluntourism organisation and asking them how they choose their projects and what their overall plan is for the communities they deal with. Or hop onto Google and check them out. If they have been around for a while, odds are good that somewhere, someone has blogged, reviewed or otherwise talked about them. Finding such feedback from previous participants can give you an excellent outline of whether they are a responsibly-run group doing the kind of work that you are interested in doing.

Follow the money. The ethics of the economics
Also worth considering are the economic consequences of your volunteering. At the most basic level, interrogate the operator about how much of the cash you might be paying to volunteer is actually going to the community. You might be impressed or disgusted with the answer. If they can’t tell you, then they are either hiding something or they don’t know. Either way, it makes them a poor choice of local partner.

Beyond questions of how much money though, are questions of where the money is being spent. If you are working on a building project, how much of the materials were bought from local businesses? Development starts with supporting what services and materials the community can provide already, not destroying local initiative by bringing in tools, materials and skills from outside that are currently available in the local economy.

Odds are good, for example, that basic building supplies exist for sale in the area, and that there are people already skilled in masonry and other artisinal practices nearby. Where situations like this exist, your participation as a (probably) unskilled participant might be best directed at doing work that will allow local community members to practice their professions in a paid capacity onsite. Such approaches promote employment, get things built faster, and support the local economy.

Development starts with supporting what services and materials the community can provide already, not destroying local initiative by bringing in tools, materials and skills that are currently available.

Unfortunately, such projects typically mean that you will find yourself a manual labourer working under a local foreman. Which might not be what you bargained for. As Alexia Nestoria, a voluntourism industry consultant and the voice behind the Voluntourism Gal blog points out, an overwhelming proportion of volunteer projects don’t actually need volunteers to do the work that they are volunteering to do. Not only are there often local people willing and able to undertake the projects, but the time required to actually train and monitor unskilled well-wishers often detracts from effort that communities could otherwise put into just getting on with implementing projects themselves.

The reason for taking volunteers on despite their relative inefficiency is generally because those volunteers are funding the projects. Volunteers are seldom willing to send their cash, but stay at home themselves. Even when it would be a more rational and efficient approach.

So the question that you need to then ask yourself is:

Why am I doing this?
If you are purely interested in doing good, to the exclusion of all other aims, then simply donating your volunteering money to a decent and efficient local organisation may well achieve those aims best.

But simply wanting to do good in the abstract is seldom the motivation for those who travel to volunteer. Many would-be voluntourists have a desire to be a physical part of the project and to have a hand in making the world – quite literally – a better place. Here, a voluntourist needs to make some practical decisions about where their assistance will be most helpful (or minimally troublesome) for a community.

If you have particular specialist skills that are not easily available locally, then consider partnering with organisations that can use those skills. Sure, making a website for a local NGO may not be as sexy as getting your hands dirty building a school, but other people may be able to build walls. Not everyone can set up a decent website, and that makes your contribution necessary and valuable in a way that your grunt labour isn’t.

…and who am I doing this for?
No good volunteerism project works by making heroes out of foreigners in the local community – it’s about working with local groups to achieve development aims as directly and usefully as possible. If that means that you aren’t the top dog on the building site, and the local guy who actually knows how mortar and bricks go together is, then so be it.

Putting the power of the free market to efficiently satisfy demands together with narcissistic fantasies of helping the impoverished is a recipe for disaster.

That said, there is a school of thought that says that voluntourism should be approached from the point of view of the customer. That people want to feel good about themselves, and that should be catered to as much as possible because the free market will work to weed out the poor projects from the good (watch the first few minutes of this conference, for example) and a growth in good volunteer-centered projects will ensue.

The danger here however, is that the kind of voluntourism project that appeals to a naive traveler’s ego is precisely the project that is unlikely to be developmentally helpful to communities. Projects that are primarily about you as the participant tend to be short lived, low-effort and frequently without a long term goal – since the ‘goal’ is not developmental at all. It’s about making you feel good. Putting the power of the free market to efficiently satisfy demands together with narcissistic fantasies of helping the impoverished is a recipe for disaster.

Oh god. Can I do no right?!
You can. And there are many reasons that you should. But it’s important to pay attention to the fine detail. Questions about where the money goes and the intricacies of your relationship to the community you serve are absolutely fundamental to directing your energies wisely. If you are taking the trouble to go out of your comfort zone to make life better for others, the least you can do is your homework, and to be aware of the complexity of the questions you need to ask.

Voluntourism wouldn’t exist as an industry if travelers were happy to efficiently donate money for local organisations to do the work themselves. For better or worse, many folk want to have a hand in the process of helping communities. That desire can be a useful (or at least benign) learning experience, or it can be wholly unhelpful. To what degree your next journey to volunteer abroad will be one or the other depends a great deal on how you are able to honestly confront some difficult questions about why you are going, who you are going for, and whether you are participating in a project that – in the fine detail – is going to be a force for good.

You may find yourself surprised at how quickly the most straightforward school-building project can become an exercise in self-analysis. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s also absolutely necessary.

Volunteer Guides


 

About The Author

Richard Stupart

Richard lives and works in South Africa, exploring as often as possible the strange and unknown places that his continent is so rich in. What stories of far flung places and mischief he is able to trap and bring home are mounted on his blog. Where the Road Goes.

  • Abbie Mood

    You have some good points here, Rich. I think a big takeaway for me is to really think about what you are planning on doing and is it really the best way to help.

  • http://twitter.com/kephsenett Keph Senett

    Brilliant. Solidly researched analysis.  Thanks for this.

  • http://philintheblank.net Phil Paoletta

    well said. I’m running a project right now that is specifically designed to raise the profile of social enterprises and organizations that feature community members solving social problems. I am encouraging others to join me on the sidelines, supporting and spreading the word as much as possible, but not actually volunteering or leading efforts. These organizations are the most effective and the most sustainable. I will be encouraging others to read your piece here, especially those who are contemplating voluntourism. Thanks!!

    • Richard

      Hi Phil. That would be super, thanks! I absolutely agree that in many cases, organisations managed and staffed by members of the community are a longer-lasting and more holistic approach to development. It’s something of a pity that so many resources remain diverted to orphan-hugging over more effective and well-thought-out projects.

      • http://philintheblank.net Phil Paoletta

        Daniela, that looks like a very worthy project, but I am currently based in West Africa. One aspect of my work is that I visit the projects and showcase them on my blog with first person documentation through media and words. Someone you might want to get in touch with, though, is Rizwan Tayabali. He does pro bono consultation work for organizations like that and I believe he is currently in Malaysia, but he gets around. You can read more about him here: http://social-explorer.blogspot.com/ 

        Richard, yes! And also organizations that are framed less as someone helping another, and more as a partnership with mutual interests – this is ideal. if you want to check out the project, you can go here: http://howtodrawcamels.com/ 

    • danielapapi

      Hi Phil – there is a group of young people in Cambodia (JHS and HS students) who have created an organization to reach goals they have for their communities. They are really impressive!  Just yesterday I met with them and asked them to list their dreams for the organization and they said they would like to see groups like theirs in every community across Cambodia. If they connected to you and your work, you might be able to help them move closer to their dreams!  Check out their website (which it looks like they haven’t updated in a while but gives you a general idea of who they are/what they do): http://yvcd.wordpress.com/

  • jenna

    such an interesting read richard, thanks.

    at university i came across a lot of people who were doing volunteer work from overseas, and it always shocked me how much they were paying to do it.

    i’ve also always felt uncomfortable with the power dynamic that i feel is created between the volunteer and the supposed person in need- it often feels patronising to me.

    i’m not saying that people shouldn’t contribute their skills to development projects, or as you suggested, that they’re all the same, but i do agree that it is definitely an ethically sensitive issue.

    • Richard

      I think that power dynamic is absolutely key. It also serves to reinforce that local people are in need of you and you are the benevolent hero. Whereas community-constituted projects do precisely the opposite – showcasing exactly how well people can do things for themselves if given the resources.

      In South Africa, township tours are my ethical bane for this kind of relationship-warping. Not the kinds where you go and see landmarks and things, but the ones that feel like they are explicitly about putting travelers and their expensive cameras on buses to ogle urban poverty specifically because they are poor/different.

  • danielapapi

    Here is a link to a video which someone in Cambodia recently made about the orphanage tourism problem in Siem Reap: http://vimeo.com/21790809

  • tingkerbell_yiu

    Thank you for writing a piece with such clarity and grounding. More often than not, voluntourism is much about polishing a travellers ego than any altruistic cause. The outsourcing of development materials to help the “less developed countries” reeks  uncomfortably of  thinly veiled colonialism for the conscience. When I was younger I volunteered in India at an orphanage that had “taken” kids from Nepal – many were actually sold by their parents. It was an uncomfortable realisation for a 20 year old and I realised that these “orphans” exposed to a steady stream of ipod toting, harem pant wearing, ganga smoking  backpackers could only desire a lifestyle that they could probably never achieve. You are totally spot on – successful development needs to be led locally, sourced from within a community with spokespeople and leaders that are in touch with the society, customs and ways. Every backpacker potentially heading of to cleanse their Karma in Siem Riep needs to read this. I also follow the writing on your blog – always thought provoking!

    • Richard

      I can’t get the image of ‘harem pants’ out of my head. 

      I can only imagine how unsettling that realisation must have been for you. Particularly if it is in an environment where the practice is presented and reinforced as being unproblematic.

      I’d love to hear more about your experience in India – it sounds really instructive.

      • tingkerbell_yiu

        I was fixated with the “uniform” that all backpackers seem to don once they hit Indian soil  – nothing against harem pants, I have shamelessly acquired several pairs due to their comfort level – just mesmerised by the cultural phenomenon of the Indian backpacker that I happily participated in and observed at the same time.

        It made my skin crawl when I started hearing stories from the staff that worked there, and watching these halfway children that were neither Indian, Nepali or Western – someone had played god in their lives without realising (or ignored) the repercussions.

        India is so hard to encapsulate in words – the entire idea of it fails you on a sensory level to describe it. It makes you angry and loving in one fell swoop. Its a place that demands you to search yourself. It was the first place I had travelled to by myself, definitively formative. If India doesn’t scar you (of which it scars many, usually those that don’t make it past the one-month adjustment time frame) it’ll break you and make you open to any and all cultures on earth – hah, dramatic, but that place does it for you.

        After that orphanage experience though, I accidentally became friends with an old Indian principal that had started an orphanage high up in the hills of Uttarakand – a nowhere place by traveller standards as there were no monuments, no religious sites, no bhang lassis, no yoga classes – a great beautiful nothing of normal Indian lives. And the orphanage/school was started because the hill area was so remote. The majority of men in this area became soldiers as it was the only source of income in the area. The children were either fatherless of lived too far to attend school.  The children would get up 4 am each day to practice yoga and meditate – I won’t gush on about how spiritual this is as its an integral part of every Indian, where we in the west venerate and glorify, it is normality over there. Refreshing and no nonsense, one minute chanting mantras, the next the kids would move to their favourite Bollywood dance number – this kind of encapsulates what India is, both the past and present, faith and technology – all a beautiful, heady, chaotic, organised mess.

        Your piece “Whither the Next Journey” gave me travelbumps! The spine chill you get when you ponder the vastness of how many places there are still to see! After a huge hiatus from writing, and then reading your piece, I decided to quit my job next year and enrol in the matador U writing course. I am in the process of finding all my dusty journals, thoughts scrawled on tea stained napkins, the back of train tickets and then clobbering them into something web worthy :)

        • Richard

          I’m glad you are following your heart! In the end, when you look back, it’s difficult to imagine anything that will matter more than knowing that you really, truly lived.

          I can’t wait to read your work – do you have a blog that I can sneak around? I’d really dig to read about your travels.

          • tingkerbell_yiu

            I am stricken by the malais of procrastination – sigh, I have been busy teaching this past year which leaves very little time to have a life or do the things I love – hence the “quitting the job next year” move. I would be honored to have you sneak around my blog – as soon as its ready, have also thousands of photos to sort through dating back since 2007….so its going to be a mother of a job! Meanwhile, I will happily revel in your writings :)

          • http://www.wheretheroadgoes.com Richard

            Jupiter’s Travels arrived in the post today – I’m looking forward to reading it :)

          • tingkerbell_yiu

            Let me know what you think! I am a slow reader owing to my penchant for
            simultaneously reading 5 books at once – you may finish it before me :)

          • tingkerbell_yiu

            I have been reading Ted Simon’s “Jupiter’s Travels” – the original motorcyclist that journeyed through Africa (and many continents more). Thought you might enjoy it if you haven’t read it. I just read your “About Richard” piece on your blog…..its making my heart break. Once you taste the opiate of a travellers life, from there on, you can never be the same and a normal existence is forever out of your reach.

          • http://www.compasio.org Fran Thwaites

            I am an Australian living in Mae Sot, Thailand. I agree that this life spoils us for normal existence – and I also agree about voluntourism. The organisation I work with here never takes in children who have families, unless parents are imprisoned, seriously abusive to their children, or have abandoned their babies. 
            Mostly , our work involves providing the basics of life to keep children with their families – food, school supplies etc. – and therefore we have only 15 or 16 children in three residential homes among the community.
            Those who have a parent ,are taken to visit them regularly in prison or at home, and we respect the family unit as being paramount to the social and emotional well-being of the child. This is so, even if the standard of nutrition, hygiene or care in the child’s home or village is far less than we Westerners would consider acceptable.At the same time, we are working hard to provide clean water, work-skills and so on to our large refugee population here.Our organisation is National-led, with us long-term Western volunteers being here to serve and empower our national leaders in any way we can.  We do not accept “voluntourists”, and visitors are not permitted to visit our homes casually to play with the children, for the reasons stated in the above article. All long-term volunteers are throughly vetted before acceptance.All our homes are rented, and all works and repairs are locally-sourced.Be encouraged that many of us are getting it as right as we can!  Thanks for the article – it’s great to read .

          • http://www.wheretheroadgoes.com Richard

            Fran, you are ticking all my good boxes here. It sounds like you have a really well-thought out project going.  If only more good could be done that way.

          • kid_caro

            “Once you taste the opiate of a travellers life, from there on, you can
            never be the same and a normal existence is forever out of your reach.” – thank you tingkerbell_yiu for one of the most heartbreakingly true statements I’ve ever read! Good luck with the writing. With material like that, you’re bound to succeed.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YYJIGWXTM4LLCN4HOLJAATYND4 Anthony

    Has anyone else noticed all the adverts running on Matador promoting these sorts of organisations?

    • Richard

      I hadn’t seen the ads, but I did see a bunch of old posts on “X places to do voluntourism” in the past when I was looking around. That said, I think it’s a natural consequence of developing debates around these kinds of issues that you will look back in time and judge yourself. God knows, if you asked me about voluntourism years ago, I would have given very different (and far less critical) responses about the practice. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=687592063 Karen Dion

    Excellent, Richard. Thanks for writing.

  • http://euphonick.com/ Nick Rowlands

    Interesting piece with some good advice. I think this is key: “Development starts with supporting what services and materials the community can provide already, not destroying local initiative by bringing in tools, materials and skills from outside that are currently available in the local economy.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1177491158 Helen McGuinness

    Great article. I have volunteered abroad a couple of times and never really thought about it in this way. I guess I’m just too much of an idealist!
    I only volunteered on environmental and animal related projects though, which were overlooked by qualified biologists, and it inspired me to do a conservation biology degree.
    I just hope that my work was actually for good.

  • http://miller-david.com david miller

    ‘But simply wanting to do good in the abstract is seldom the motivation for those who travel to volunteer.’

    ‘simply wanting to [abstraction]‘ as the justification for [abstraction]

    when the ground level reality is removed / abstracted /  obfuscated (especially in one’s own mind) ,  action loses its transparency.

  • S2mac

    Interesting article, and I wholeheartedly agree with you. But I think people need to remember that there a lot of organizations and NGOs out there that do conduct themselves, their operations and their volunteers in the correct way that it should be done. It is unfortunate that those who do it wrong bring down the whole industry.

  • http://matadornetwork.com/ Carlo Alcos

    Very well thought- and laid-out Rich. A “must-read” for anyone considering doing this. Becoming aware and mindful is something that takes time and experience…hopefully this post can help in that.

  • http://www.suitcasescribbles.com Vanessa

    And don’t forget that sometimes you help just as much by frequenting the local businesses. Also, for any fellow Australians, the government has a website dedicated to volunteering overseas, often in areas where you might have expertise. http://www.ausaid.gov.au/

  • Wendy

    I agree that there are poor voluntourism projects out there, I’ve seen it firsthand.  But, this does beg the question…Are there any effective voluntourism projects
    out there? What makes them effective? What should people look for
    instead of only considering what they should avoid?  What would success look like? 

  • Emkay Tela

    “The danger here however, is that the kind of voluntourism project that
    appeals to a naive traveler’s ego is precisely the project that is
    unlikely to be developmentally helpful to communities. Projects that are
    primarily about you as the participant tend to be short lived,
    low-effort and frequently without a long term goal – since the ‘goal’ is
    not developmental at all. It’s about making you feel good. Putting the
    power of the free market to efficiently satisfy demands together with
    narcissistic fantasies of helping the impoverished is a recipe for
    disaster.”

    Thank you for putting this in writing and out into the larger discussion. I was a community ESL teacher here in California from age 22-24 and a Peace Corps volunteer in Latin America/Caribbean from age 24-27. While it was a great experience in terms of education about the larger world, economics, cultures, languages and teaching it was also a huge growing up experience. I learned a lot about how the business of “doing good” is far more complicated than wanting to help other people, especially in terms of questioning my own privilege. It seems that in the past few years,  there’s been a stronger movement of people wanting to “do good,” but without these deeper considerations that you so skilfully lay out. Especially when voluntourism taps into exoticism – it’s way sexier to talk about doing good in some foreign land (maybe the Laurence of Arabia fantasy) than some of the more mundane but equally as important good works you could be doing in your own daily life/community. 

    • Richard

      Totally agree – that exoticism point is really important to many people’s ideas of voluntourism. It should really be called out for what it is. It would be fascinating to examine the extent to which people volunteer in many countries with a real commitment to learning, vs wanting to recreate the stereotypes they expected before they left.

      • Mary Taylor

        Oh there is plenty of satire on people wanting to recreate the stereotypes, like in Stuff White People Like or http://gurlgoestoafrica.tumblr.com/. Or guy in my training group (who eventually got kicked out for spending more time smoking ganja than teaching) who got up an apologized on behalf of all white people to a panel discussion about the legacy of European colonialism in Latin America. 

        The stereotypes are bi-directional, as one of the issues Peace Corps volunteers who are African-American, Chicano/Latino/Hispanic, and Asian-American sometimes run into are people thinking they aren’t a representative of the organization because they aren’t white. 

  • Applesuck

    Hi! I could really use your advice. I was seriously considering doing a volunteer trip in South Africa (in and around Cape Town) next year and I was hoping to volunteer at an animal shelter for about 6-8 weeks rescuing animals. On the weekends I can go cage diving with sharks, rock climbing, on a safari, sky diving, etc. Would anyone be willing to take a look at the program and tell me what they think? I would really really appreciate any advice, or other possible programs that would be better but offer the same experiences/chances for adventure and to learn a new culture.Tank you!

    Here is the program:
    http://www.africanimpact.com/volunteer-projects/projects/hands-on-veterinary-assistance-and-abused-animal-shelter-project/highlights

  • http://www.OnOurOwnPath.com/ Kyle Crum

    Great article!  I wholeheartedly agree with what you have to say.  There should be one more consideration added, though: don’t do work that locals could do.  A lot of people volunteer and do things like digging ditches or hammering boards together, which makes people feel great about “working with their hands”, but it’s also something that a local could do just as well or probably better.  By paying to do these kind of jobs, volunteers are actually taking potential jobs away from locals who could use them.  A good volunteer program will use some skill that you have that is needed in the country (the post popular being English-language-based skills).  If the program can’t do that, then it’s not worth going, in my opinion. 

    • Richard

      English teaching would actually be a fascinating study. I absolutely agree – it would fall (in many cases) firmly into the category of a genuinely useful way of helping through providing something that a community may truly not be able to source from among themselves. 

      It’s also – unlike, say, electrical engineering – a useful skill that many would-be volunteers could (with a bit of TEFL training), be fairly good at providing, I imagine.

  • mutyang

    This is so true. 

    “While NGOs exist that have an exceptional track record of building useful, useable structures, there are equally as many fly by night operations more concerned with giving you something to do than with actually helping a community. ” – While it is a scary thought, it actually is an existing reality that we all have to face. But sometimes, the great bargain of just “doing it” just in case it really helps people is at the bottom of the whole experience.

  • Sallie

    and here is a recent article in National Geographic Traveller  by a journalist who volunteered in a Thai Orphanage – I am pleased my caveats were included but saddened they were not followed.
    http://natgeotraveller.co.uk/how/features/17515/

    • Richard

      That article makes for an interesting read. I get irked when people try to argue that orphanage-volunteering particularly, is only problematic if done by ‘dishonest’ or ‘unscrupulous’ companies, rather than focusing on issues that are actually problematic with the practice no matter who does it or how ‘responsibly’. In some cases, voluntourism is simply unethical by its nature, not because the operator made it so. 

      • Sallie

         ah but Richard – the organisation I run does place volunteers in orphanages – but to transfer skills not replace local labour and the staff at the orphanage are strict about how volunteers engage with the children.
         Our volunteers are people like, nurses, paediatricians, play therapists, teachers – drama therapists.
        I have not named the organisation or given link to the project – I dont want this comment to seem like spam!If you would like links I will happily supply.
         We have spent a great deal of time recently discussing whether we should continue our skills share programme in the orphanage( which we did a lot of due diligence on by the way) – the board wish us to continue – they are comfortable that they accept each volunteer with informed consent – we send them full details of the volunteer and their skills and experience and only after the project has accepted that volunteer and we have agreed  what they will be doing is that volunteer accepted.Not perfect , we know, but our programme gives access to a skills base that this excellent local charity would not otherwise be able to afford.

        • Richard

          I’m no authority on the ethics of voluntourism, let me confess that right up front. :)

          From what you say, it sounds like you have gone to great pains to avoid the problems above, making sure that the volunteers have something to contribute that is not available locally, that they are screened, and that they aren’t just paying to play with underprivileged kids. 

          Honestly, that feels like a really good, practical balance between doing as much good as possible, while mitigating potential problems as much as you can. 

          So yeah, I would take back my unqualified criticism of *all* orphanage projects, and perhaps replace it with an unqualified criticism of short-term, play-only, unscreened-volunteer orphan projects. :) That should give me enough argumentative room to still feel smug, yet also add that it sounds like you are doing good work, that has been really comprehensively thought about.

          I’d definitely be keen to find out more about the specific projects you are working with – can you shoot me an email with the links? (richard@matadornetwork.com)

  • Sallie

    not sure if its me but I can’t open the additional comments

  • Kati

    These are all very good points, but there’s another, very important, reason for “voluntourism” that you might address… It’s a very important opportunity for people who have grown up in a culturally isolated environment, who have never seen the way other people live or what their needs are, to have their horizons broadened. Especially for the ‘rich westerners’, but to some extent, also to the ‘recipients of the service’, meeting people from different cultures with different needs is HUGE. (not to self-promote or anything, but the goal of my new blog is going to be to explore creative ways to gain that cultural exposure… http://www.katiworonka.com, but it’s not really up and running yet)

    • http://www.wheretheroadgoes.com Richard

      While I absolutely agree that there is a huge benefit to travel and foreign experiences, I think that there are ways to achieve them that do not involve inflicting ill-considered foreigners on hapless communities. Travel in and of itself  - whether a structured tour or a more free-form exploration – has this benefit without requiring volunteering.

      • http://www.katiworonka.com Kati Woronka

        Hi Richard, sorry for the delayed reply… but I decided I’d still like to address your point. I don’t actually think travel in and of itself is the same thing as really getting to know people. I’ve heard too many stories of Americans who visit the “holy land” and get a skewed vision of the people in that part of the world, or Europeans who think their tour guide in Bali is a typical Indonesian. Backpackers, too, tend to meet the people who like to spend time with backpackers for one reason or another – sure, a beautiful random encounter happens now and again but that’s not to be expected.

        I don’t want to advocate taking advantage of orphans just for Westerners to get to say they volunteered – you’re right in saying that that’s unfair and morally wrong. But I do think there is a shortage of alternative options for good-hearted people interested in understanding the world beyond what a tourist is likely to see. And I don’t think pushing rich people further into their bubble is good for the world in the long term. We need to come up with better options, or accept some negative outcome or another.

        An organisation I volunteered with (http://www.middleeastfellowship.org) does a reasonably good job of this, although we are all still learning. They are sponsoring structured volunteer-learning experiences in Palestine and Syria. I helped lead their Damascus programme and was impressed by the open and transparent dialogue we had with our Syrian hosts about what was appropriate and not, and taking time with the volunteers to regularly debrief. Honestly, though, I think the reason I respect their approach is that they recognise that they don’t have the answers and we are all seeking the answers together. I think the learning attitude is the important first step, right? ;)

        Sorry for the rant… I’ve enjoyed reading the discussion!

  • danielapapi

    Another piece in National Geographic Traveler on the topic which I recently contributed to: http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/traveler-magazine/tales-from-the-frontier/volunteer-trips/

  • Lauren Quinn

     I really appreciated the non-didactic approach to a very complex issue. Well done!

    The issue of fraudulent orphanages in Cambodia is a huge one, fueled largely, it seems, but well-meaning Westerners who haven’t looked deeply into where their money is going. Another point brought up—the lack of background checks on visitors—is even more troubling; tragically, some orphanages have become pedophile magnets.

    Great piece, and well handled!

  • Teri

    Excellent and informative. Thanks for more writing that both sings and speaks substance.

  • Gregh95

    When I was in journalism school, one of the students went to Accra in Ghana and did some voluntouring. I wonder if reading this would have made her think more carefully. Obviously no, because she was  a spoiled, talkative prat who lacked an ability to think but could manipulate heartstrings well. Hell, our school newspaper ran a story on it despite a rule that journalists can’t do stories on themselves. What a double standard that is. 

    • http://www.wheretheroadgoes.com Richard

      Ouch :) What sort of work did she do in Ghana?

  • KarinMarijke

    Thanks for the insightful article Richard. You bring up excellent points.

    Posible tip for volunteers:
    VSO is, I believe, one of those organisations that scrutinize each applicant before sending them to a project. If I remember correctly you sing up of 2 years and you can only volunteer in a topic you’re an expert on (computer programming, for example) and that skill is lacking as well as needed in the place you’re being send to.

    btw, haven’t worked for them, no advertisement intended here.

    • http://www.wheretheroadgoes.com Richard

      I’d heard the same about VSO before. Compared to something like the Peace Corps, it seems a lot better thought through for its focus on getting people with scarce skills into places that need them. They would definitely be worth checking out as an option, though not if someone was only looking for a week’s worth of easily-departed feel good fun.

  • Stefanie_langley

    I appreciate this
    post, but I can’t help but feel like there are some important positive points
    of ‘voluntourism’ missing in the article. I have worked in the  industry (as a volunteer project leader) for years in various regions and sadly
    I have seen first-hand a lot of these ‘misguided’ practices you mentioned
    above…But I also know that many organizations choose to house volunteers not
    just for the benefits of extra funding, but also because volunteers can act as
    representatives and spread through word of mouth the awareness and education
    about sensitive issues (hopefully) learned while volunteering.

    If volunteers
    become passionate about the issues (human rights, animal rights, conservation,
    etc) surrounding their project experience, they will become advocates for the
    cause forever. Sending money from home is always beneficial, but the donors
    usually lack the passion and continued financial support displayed by
    volunteers who have lived, breathed and surrounded themselves with whatever
    cause they volunteered for.

    Now I am living as
    a full-time volunteer in a children’s home (children that have been abandoned,
    not just orphaned) that hosts short-term volunteer programs for
    tourists/travelers in a controlled environment. These kids are from neighboring
    Burma and have limited rights here in Thailand. Every day their chances of
    getting Thai citizenship and passports increases as their English conversation
    skills improve, and this is from the constant interaction with Western
    volunteers. These kids are out-performing their local Thai peers in every way,
    which will increase their chances later on when competing for jobs and community
    integration; and their confidence levels increase noticeably each year through
    positive interaction with voluntourists.  Yes, sometimes temporary
    relationships can create strong bonds that are hard to say goodbye to; however,
    to love, lose and to say goodbye are natural occurrences in life and kids (and
    adults) everywhere around the world should learn how to handle that.

    Some of the kids I
    work with have only known darkness, pain and trauma from losing their families
    and loved ones…the voluntourists that come through regularly provide a breath
    of fresh air, stimulation and energy for the kids. Living in a children’s home, living the same routine day in and
    day out where kids have heavily restricted travel and limited resources in a
    rural village/border town…well, it’s not easy to stay sane, and more
    importantly it’s harder to stay out of trouble. I can honestly say that for our
    kids, the arrival of a new short-term voluntourist group is the highlight of
    their month! 

  • Patience

    I was initially skeptical of this article because of the title, but I really liked it and agree with it. I have volunteered in Rwanda, Vietnam, and Peru in teaching and construction programs while visiting orphanages. The main point to take away is to do your homework. I spent 4 months researching the NGO I went with before committing. The biggest problem is with new first time volunteers and their attitudes. I was the same way on my first experience, but you need to have the proper expectations. You are not going to change the world in one trip whether you are there for 1 week or 1 year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference. And if you are going with the main purpose of bragging to your friends and showing pictures of orphans on Facebook, you are not ready to volunteer. Focus on helping people and how you can continue to support them after you leave. It is true that some local people thrive solely on the dollars of foreigners, you just have to be conscious of what is helping and what is harming. I have seen everything from tears flowing down a displaced refugee’s face for my contribution to being offered a prostitute by the locals I was working with. In the end, it depends all on the volunteer’s choices. You have a responsibility.

    • http://www.wheretheroadgoes.com Richard

      Offered a prostitute?! Wow, there is a story in there :) But yes, I absolutely agree that people need to be realistic about how much change they can achieve. And doing it for Facebook-bragging rights is more than a little loathsome.

  • Nejma

    THANK YOU!

  • Marianne

    Hey Richard, great article. I certainly agree. I have always thought that the benefits of many of these organizations are for the volunteers, rather than for the locals they are “helping.”

    • http://www.wheretheroadgoes.com Richard

      Thanks Marianne – and yeah, it’s a problem made worse when it becomes OK to settle on creating ‘volunteer-oriented’ projects and an entire industry around it. 

  • Ken in SF

    Thanks Richard for a great article.  It is unfortunate that this is true about international “development” in general.  The problem is that we (as donors/volunteers) are attracted to organizations and projects that give us warm fuzzies, instead of thinking critically about the permanence of the solution being presented.  If anyone wants some guidelines on how to tell the effective from the fluff, check out http://www.realgoodnotfeelgood.org.

    • http://www.wheretheroadgoes.com Richard

      Awesome – thanks for the link Ken! I’ve been wondering lately about that tension between giving yourself warm fuzzies and doing what is rationally best. Neither staying at home and sending your money to a wel-researched charity, nor painting walls that achieves nothing seems ideal. But where in the ground between those poles best practice lies is a really, really tough question.

  • http://katecaroline.wordpress.com Kate Caroline

    Hi,
    I just wanted to say that I think this is a really great and important article, so thanks for raising awareness about this issue. I’ve always had a problem with volunteer organizations and having to pay to volunteer. I think a much better way to go about finding places to volunteer abroad is to first go to your country of choice and then look for local NGOs and volunteer opportunities, who will most likely only accept you as a volunteer if they have real need for you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2405791 Julian Maliki Hill

    Richard,

    I appreciate the blunt nature of the article as well as the fact that you seemed to have put much thought into it. It’s given me a few things to consider next time I decide to volunteer abroad…

    Julian

  • semchen

    what a brilliant article!!!!!! you’ve totally put my do-gooder attitude in check. i can see now id be better off fundraising capital for local projects (and simply holidaying overseas) than voluntouring. thank u.

  • Fundacion Mariposas Amarillas

    I would like to put in a plea that not all volontourism projects are bad! We run a small grassroots NGO in Colombia. Our mission is to improve the lives and educational standards of children and adults by running after-school centres and health workshops in marginalised barrios. We have one one local staff member (the founder and director, a former street kid himself) and apart from this rely entirely on volunteers.

    We charge each volunteer $50, which we use for the Director’s salary (around $600 a month), building maintenance, electricity and water bills. We are currently building a new after-school centre, using all local materials and a combination of local and volunteer labour (we don’t have the funds to use exclusively paid local labour). We ask volunteers to pay for their own class materials and transport to and from the schools (about $20 a week) as our income from donations simply doesn’t cover this.

    We expect our volunteers to work hard, but in order to get enough people to keep our projects running, we have to be flexible and allow people to work for shorter periods – a minimum of a week. In an ideal world, we’d have greater funds which would allow us to use trained Colombian professionals instead of untrained (though enthusiastic) volunteers to work on our projects. But the reality is, this simply won’t happen while we have no access to outside funding and no large fundraising team at our disposal.

    We don’t consider that we are exploiting naive travellers, nor contributing negatively to our communities. We are thankful for volunteers’ time, but at the same time I would agree that lots more money would probably be more useful that lots more one- or two-week volunteer placements by people with good intentions, but no experience. Until that extra funding becomes possible, however, we work with volunteers and are extremely grateful for the time they donate.

    Gemma Pitcher
    Fundacion Mariposas Amarillas
    Colombia

  • Marc

    Nothing wrong with this analysis except its conclusions. Mr. Stupart has
    permitted his knowledge  to descend into cynicism and that’s too bad.
    Ive made a career of working on difficult situations, substance abuse,
    serious and persistent mental illness, environmental conservation in
    tropical environments. I’m also a good deal older. What he see as
    realism is what I call burnout.  His message should have been that one
    should give thought to the kind of volunteering one does. But he didn’t
    do that.

  • Stacia

    When I was in Western Kenya, many locals were encouraging me to fund projects by charging volunteers money.  “You can make so much money from them,” one Pastor kept saying.  “Many groups are getting so much money from Whites coming here.”

    I paid for 2 months myself knowing I was paying for the experience and insight, and  accomodation and food.  I then was in enough to make my own contacts.  I had put off “volunteering” for years because of the cost and it went pear shaped even though it was through a friend.  And yes, the orphanage I’d paid to volunteer at (who’d received $250 US of my contribution) I later found out was a con woman who had grabbed all the local kids most of who were at school to come and pretend they were orphans whilst I was present.  She threatened to call the police when I went to one boy’s home with a local lady and enrolled him in a proper school instead of the one she was running.  She spread rumours about me apparently drinking and not turning up to the Volunteer Agency and they left me high and dry in the middle of nowhere so I moved into a guest house and made my own friends.  The nuns across the road may have been jealous but also alerted me to some Canadian donors who were about to give their cheque to the nuns but after seeing the run down children’s home (she keeps it that way to attract donors) they diverted their funds yet the children still sleep on the floor. 

    Since this, I have turned much less socialist.  I think I would be better off starting a business in a poor country and giving people  fair working conditions and wages. 

    You’re right, there are a lot of what I called “McDonald’s of Volunteering’ organisations out there that involve playing with some kids from 10-2 each day followed by hanging out with expats and new local friends in cool cafes and some lip service to development

  • Simon Hare

    In the interests of balanced journalism, and given that you do seem to agree that volunteering at an NGO in a developing country can just occasionally do some good, I look foward to reading a follow-up article: “Why you should participate in voluntourism”.

    Many NGOs who do all the things you say they should would just not survive without volunteer donations. Thinking that a bit of logic is going to persuade a potential volunteer who wants to see it first hand to stay at home and just send the money instead is a bit naive. Many are more likely to just go on holiday instead, or worse still just stay at home and not send any money.

    Everyone expects something in return these days, even for altruistic and philanthropic actions, and there is nothing wrong with that. Properly managed voluntourism is a powerful way to broaden the wealthy West’s understanding of the developing world’s needs, of getting money straight  to where the problem is, and of creating ambassadors for the amazing work that dedicated NGO workers do to supplement woefully lacking governmental aid programmes.

    Yes, the phrase “properly managed” is crucial here, but it seems to be far easier for everyone to focus on the ones that are not properly managed (is it our hunger for scandal maybe?), than on those that are.

  • onlyincambodia

    Thank you for this article!  There is a Working Group on a Response to Short Term Volunteering in Siem Reap that has been created our of the very same questions of your article! 

  • http://twitter.com/benkeene Ben Keene

    good article. Yes it’s frustrating when ‘voluntourism’ doesn’t lead to sustainable development. I would change the headline to: ‘Why you should do you research before participating in voluntourism.’

    In my 12 years experience working between community tourism (you’re on holiday and can see how you’re money is spent responsibly and learn and share new skills) and voluntourism (you’re here to work and make a positive impact) the big difference is EXPECTATION – both for the volunteer/tourist and community/local NGO. 

    When expectations and experience are not balanced the outcome is not sustainable development – and far too often wasted time and money, and in the worst cases – exploitation. When expectations are balanced with experiences on both sides – the outcome is usually positive for all involved. 

    I set-up @tribewanted:disqus  to focus on how community tourism in a few locations over a period of time  that can deliver sustainable development (as well as meaingful experiences). 6 years later it’s something I feel the effort has been worthwhile for and it’s important this happens not just in the ‘developing world’ to make sure experiential impact spreads. 

    For voluntourism I support @fairtradev:twitter a new start-up campaign to showcase volunteer orgs that get it right. 

  • Daniel Quilter

    This a good article but as many have said ‘one should balance the argument’. After I founded Ecoteer.com I have found hundreds of good NGO’s around the world that have a good plan in place and want volunteers to help in terms of labour and funds.

    In general if you want to go for a short term volunteering programme you must be well managed whilst on the project and help with jobs that most people can do ie beach cleans, turtle watching, cleaning cages, help with classes BUT NOT LEAD THEM. If you want to do a teaching role then you should stay for at least 1 month at the VERY least.

    We have had volunteers help with beach cleans everyday and the cumulative effect of all these volunteers is the removal of thousands of cig butts and plastic bottles from the beaches in Malaysia, they have also clocked up over 2000 hours of turtle watch hours which has helped to almost 100% eliminate turtle egg poaching on our beach in Malaysia. This would not be possible without volunteers as the project doesn’t have funding from the government.

  • A World to Travel

    Controversial but def worth reading.

  • C.R.E.E.R

    Excellent piece, thank you!

    We’re hoping to have C.R.E.E.R built at the beginning of 2014 & had many people asking if we’ll take volunteers. We’re not creating a zoo but a residential vocational centre for trafficked children & our standpoint always has been generally ‘anti’ voluntourism.

    However, we are looking to take ‘experts’ in certain fields & will ask for a 3 month period to stay on site with a minimal charge for food & a deposit taken to ensure they stay on site to work with us. We hope this will work well for both the volunteer & in regards to the children’s pyschological situation.

    We will be in need of experts and as most NGO’s – we’re not a bank & can’t necessarily afford them! Time will tell if this is a viable option but some stories we’ve read makes us very aware of what can go badly wrong!

    • Overlanding West Africa

      Nicely put Chloe.

  • Sam

    I wish I would have read this before “volunteering” in South Africa. Important read and very true.

  • Terry Sebastian

    Interesting article. I do agree with it on many fronts, as I have witnessed the business from the perspective of a Photojournalist. But I must say there are benefits to everyone involved if they are aware of the organization and it’s values. And equally there are many scams out there. I have lived and worked in some of the “poorest” places in the world namely Nigeria, Peru, Haiti and currently in Bolivia. But I don’t believe one should have to “pay” to volunteer, thats really not truly from the “heart”so you must be aware.

  • http://www.newworldphotographer.com Valarie Johnson

    So this is not “Why you shouldn’t participate in voluntourism,” but “Why you need to examine your voluntourism opportunity VERY carefully before doing it.” It’s great that we’re being more critical of charities and NGOs now. Habitat for Humanity is one of those organizations that does have an excellent development plan for their local communities. And yes, wealthy foreigners are mostly paying for the privilege of volunteering as unskilled labor on the worksites (they could not afford to hire locals to do the unskilled labor, but they do hire local foremen and construction professionals to do the “real” work). Our trip fees help buy construction materials (also purchased locally). The real impact of the “voluntourism” in this case is that people in the community see that people from around the world care about their situation. Someone traveled to their home for a week to help build their house, because that’s how important they are to the world.

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