Voluntourism: the good and the bad

Updated Oct 01, 2018
15 minutes
On the surface, volunteering in another country may seem like a perfect opportunity to combine your desire to do good with the chance to experience a different culture. This type of volunteering, otherwise known as voluntourism, might appear to be positive all-around, but there are instances where voluntourism can have a negative impact on local communities.
 
This article will explore voluntourism criticisms, possible benefits of voluntourism, voluntourism statistics and how World Vision ensures the communities it serves are protected from potentially harmful practices.
 
  1. What is voluntourism?
  2. Why is voluntourism bad?
  3. What are the benefits of voluntourism?
  4. Voluntourism and World Vision: What’s our approach?
  5. If I want to be a good voluntourist, what should I keep in mind?

What is voluntourism?
The term voluntourism is a combination of the words volunteer and tourism. It is also sometimes referred to as volunteer travel or volunteer vacation. Voluntourism is a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.

Voluntourists range in age and come from all over the world. The work they do can be related to agriculture, health care, education and many other areas.

Why is voluntourism bad?
If you’ve heard of voluntourism, you’ve likely heard some of the criticisms of it. Voluntourism can have many negative effects, but perhaps the worst cases involve the exploitation of children.
 
This article from the Huffington Post describes how Haitian parents were told – and even paid – to send their children to live at orphanages where they would receive health care and education. They agreed, thinking their children would get better opportunities at the orphanage. The orphanage then posted images of the children online to solicit support and funds from around the world. After being rescued, the children described how they were beaten, left hungry and forced to do heavy labour instead of going to school.
 
Similar incidents of child abuse and/or unnecessary family separation have taken place in other countries, including in Nepal, Cambodia and Uganda.
 
So how does this relate to volunteer travelers? Voluntourism, especially at places such as orphanages, encourages the institutionalization of children, creating a profitable business out of it. Adults in positions of power can take advantage of vulnerable children and parents for the sole purpose of attracting volunteers willing to pay big money to “help someone in need”.   
 
Lumos, an organization that advocates against the institutionalization of children, says that 80 per cent of children living orphanages have at least one living parent, and that with help, these parents are capable of caring for their own children.
 
Research also shows that short-term orphanage visits can cause damage to children’s development and emotional well-being, creating unhealthy short-lived attachments and separation anxiety. Children need constant sources of love and support. Voluntourism creates, and then breaks these bonds in a destructive way.

There are a variety of other criticisms of voluntourism, among them:
 
  1. Local resources are drained: Communities receiving volunteers want to be great hosts, so they pour their own resources into ensuring food and accommodations are sufficient. These resources could be better used to improve their own lives. While volunteers may consider themselves a helpful source of manpower doing good work, they are actually just another mouth to feed.
  2. Volunteers are inexperienced: One of the biggest arguments against voluntourism is the lack of related experience volunteers have for the work they’re expected to do in the field. Take for example a volunteer who is helping build houses: if this person doesn’t have the right skillset, their work may be of poor quality – perhaps even unstable. In the end, this costs the community more time, money and energy than the volunteer has expended.
  3. Not enough time: Volunteer vacations usually only last between a few days to a couple weeks. Since most of that time is spent working, volunteers miss out on opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of the culture of the country they’re visiting.
  4. Local economy is disrupted: When volunteers show up to do work, they’re often putting local labourers out of work. In the case of the housing volunteer, local masons, construction workers, and carpenters lose jobs because of inexperienced foreign labourers.
  5. Poor supervision: Local communities are more prone to exploitation when voluntourists have inadequate supervision. Voluntourists may not mean any harm, but working with vulnerable people requires a stricter set of standards.

What are the benefits of voluntourism?
While the criticisms of volunteer vacations are many, there are some positive aspects, if they are done right.
 
  • If the voluntourism opportunity is well-thought out and sustainable, a volunteer’s actions can have long-term impact. For instance, instead of going abroad to teach English to students, why not help local teachers already living in that community improve their English and their teaching methods. In this way, jobs are not taken away from local workers. The community is left with a wealth of knowledge so current and future teachers, as well as their students, can benefit from it.
  • Learning about a new culture is a huge benefit to travelling anywhere. This is no different with voluntourism. The opportunity to immerse yourself in a community, to surround yourself with new friends and activities and to see first-hand the issues a community faces, broadens your scope of the world and your understanding of the complex nature of poverty and sustainable development.
  • Travel stimulates local economies, and voluntourists can do just that when they purchase goods from local markets, go on tours and excursions on their days off, and eat at local restaurants. This is great for businesses operating in the community and country.
  • Rather than providing inferior quality work, voluntourism can have a large impact if the work an individual is doing matches their skillset.

Voluntourism and World Vision: What’s our approach?
World Vision has one goal: the sustained well-being of children, especially the most vulnerable.

 
In order to achieve child well-being, we believe that children, whenever possible, should remain in the care of their families. When children live with their families, in their communities, their risk of being exploited decreases, compared to children living in orphanages and other institutions.

We then focus on helping those families improve their lives. But we don’t stop there. If one family is living in poverty, it’s quite possible that their community as a whole is struggling as well. World Vision also helps families improve their communities, which in turn empowers all of the children living there.
 
Communities that have essential resources can better ensure their children are healthy, happy and educated for life. Our child sponsorship program addresses the core issues of poverty through community-based sustainable development. Child sponsors are encouraged to build a relationship with their sponsored child and his or her family, and they also have the opportunity to visit their sponsored child.
 
World Vision places great emphasis on the protection of the children in our programs, and Canadian sponsors must pass a series of stringent security checks before receiving approval to travel to their sponsored child’s community. All travel is coordinated and chaperoned by World Vision staff working in that child’s country.
 
Child sponsors are also not approved to do volunteer work while in country. Instead, their visit is focused on learning about the issues their sponsored community faces, the impact their support is having there and on building a meaningful relationship with their sponsored child and his or her family.  
 
It’s also worth noting that volunteer opportunities with World Vision Canada are domestic and rarely involve international travel.
 
Additionally, World Vision’s child safe tourism campaign is focused on ensuring children living in tourist areas are protected from harm. Read more about child safe tourism and the actions you can take to protect children when you are traveling abroad.

If I want to be a good voluntourist, what should I keep in mind?

  1. Choose a cause you’re passionate about, then research, research, research!
  2. Lend your strengths, not your weaknesses. Don’t go build a house if you don’t know anything about building houses.
  3. Choose a charity that partners with local workers, instead of taking jobs away from them.
  4. Sustainable development is vital.
  5. Ask yourself, “Why?” Are you looking for gratification when you craft your travel posts for social media? Do you want to look heroic and brave to your friends and family? Or do you have a genuine desire to serve vulnerable communities. Examine your heart and your intentions. 

This checklist offers more information on ways to do voluntourism right.