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A Closer Look Into Voluntourism: Good Intentions Gone Wrong

Volunteer programs in Asia, Africa and Latin-America, in particular, have become increasingly popular over the years. Often these projects are short-term, ranging from 2 weeks to 3 months with the aim of making a positive impact. Each year numerous well-meaning young people travel overseas to volunteer. They often don't realise they are sold the illusion that they will make a difference, regardless if they lack qualifications. This side of volunteering has become known as voluntourism.

How Volunteering Has Turned Into A Fad For Young People

One study found that in the US alone, about 800,000-1,100,000 individuals participated in volunteering abroad programmes between 2004-2014. The first question is, what drives so many people to volunteer? The University of Illinois has found the average age of volunteers going abroad are people in their late teens and early twenties. Those going abroad are often inspired to do such projects during their gap years as it gives them life experience while meaningfully contributing. Research shows that an increasing number of people participate out of self-interest since it is believed that it will look good on their resume.

Beyond question, many young people have good intentions and are drawn to do these projects out of a genuine belief that they should help others. Unfortunately, this sentiment is merely a delusion created by NGOs. The UN Volunteer slogan of their 2015 report, for example, features the title: transforming governance and their preface is named: the art of the possible. Both suggest the idea of a makeable world, led by aspirational volunteers. In short, many of the volunteers might have the right intentions, but what are the underlying issues?

The Legacy Of Colonisation Lives On Through Voluntourism

Volunteering has existed for decades but it's only after the 1960's that according to Pippa Biddle, the voluntourism sector truly took off. Many organisations sprung up from religious communities, grassroots organisations and larger NGOs.

However, as volunteering has gained attention, so has its critics. Debates often centre around its effectiveness (numbers don’t lie), the quality of many programmes and the problematic neo-colonial legacy. Prominent post-colonial scholars like Edward Said have introduced the concepts of orientalism and othering. This boils down to the fact that we view non-western people through our western lens and by doing so (unconsciously) promote or reinforce false assumptions of the so-called other.

One Canadian example argues how Said’s work can also be applied to voluntourism as it often stereotypes and dehumanizes people because they are stripped of their agency. More food for thought is how colonial history has permanently changed the economies and infrastructures of many non-European countries. It is therefore important to avoid the perpetuation of colonial power hierarchies as it once again dehumanizes people, in this case through voluntourism.

Why Are Unqualified Volunteers Allowed to Work In the Medical Field?

One issue that builds on the agency topic is evident in the medical volunteering sector. One study, for example, shows that medically motivated projects often feature some kind of “paternalism” which means in this case that medical treatments are not always subject to the patient’s consent. It's a dangerous system that lacks accountability and shows a gross disrespect to the individual in question. Other examples include sending undergraduate medical students to volunteer abroad even though they are not qualified to give out certain medical treatments. Another bizarre example highlights how plastic surgeons participating in a volunteer project are often motivated by personal monetary gains.

Would People In the West Settle For These Standards?

The disparity between western health care standards versus those practised on the ground during volunteer projects is highly problematic. Considering how much personal health is valued in the West, why are these standards not upheld on volunteering missions? It's ironic to travel to aid others while providing them with services that would often be illegal in the West.

Organizations Are Not Doing Enough To Ensure That Volunteers Are Qualified

Many volunteer projects have little to no entry requirements, most of them are simply looking for people who are “enthusiastic” and “passionate”. Enthusiasm is important but so is having the right skills. You probably wouldn't want an unqualified social worker treating one of your loved ones, so why do people in developing countries not deserve the same?

More practical examples include volunteers going on village building trips - without any experience building houses or doing woodwork. Such examples highlight the existence of economic inefficiencies and show disregard for people's lives. Those financial inefficiencies are also prevalent in the corporate structure of volunteering organisations. Many big organisations continue to emphasize how anyone can make a positive change without previous experience, claiming that they will provide all the necessary skills.

Attracting as many volunteers as possible means higher financial rewards. VSO International, one of the UK’s leading volunteer organisations, spends as much as £568,625 (total compensation payable, including employers National Insurance contributions, pension and terminations costs) on its five top executives. Considering the average UK salary in 2019 was £36,611 it's ironic that these NGO executives are earning more than most.

There Are Other Ways To Help

For those that genuinely want to make a difference, there are other ways that don't require paying thousands of dollars to large, questionable NGOs for short stints in a developing country.

A Few Suggestions

  • Donate directly to transparent organisations. Ask around, look into local organisations, try to connect with people on the ground. If you decide to go for a bigger organisation: read their annual reports, find testimonies from previous volunteers. There are also larger companies out there that are specialised in vetting organisations such as Give Well or Charity Watch.

  • Volunteer locally in your community or territory. While it often seems that helping those in need requires hopping on a plane, the opposite can be true. Even if you live in a wealthy country, there may still be people in need in your society.

  • Only volunteer if qualified if and preferably as a long-term commitment. Instead of a few weeks, a real difference is usually made over months (if not years.) Seek programmes that are in vital need of your skills and qualifications.

  • Use your voice and educate yourself. If you are not in a position to contribute financially or with your time, think about raising awareness and engaging in conversations with others, no matter how uncomfortable.

We believe in raising awareness about the harmful side of volunteering and travel in general. A great place to start is by researching the history of some of these countries such as Uganda, Kenya, India (to name a few) and trying to understand how colonisation has had a detrimental impact on them. Maybe then it will become clearer why volunteering in these countries has become so popular and how it often plays into post-colonialism by taking advantage of less developed countries.

Post written by Lisa Walen


If you have considered volunteering abroad or have done it the past, this post is not intended to shame you or blame individuals and we are not claiming to be experts either. This post has been written as a tool to generate awareness about the impact we can have. Being silent is being complicit, so we are choosing to spread awareness on these issues. We recommend reading the following article by The Guardian and researching using Google Scholar. Finally, feel free to ask questions and engage in conversation.


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