Take Caution Before Volunteering Abroad



Giving back to your community using the resources at your disposal is highly commendable. So, logically, volunteering seems like a worthwhile way to spend a vacation. As a result, the volunteer holiday industry, more commonly known as the voluntourism industry, is thriving. Proponents of voluntourism say that the industry’s continuing growth not only is evidence of a general trend toward people seeking meaning, fulfillment or a sense of purpose in life but also leaves very tangible, positive impacts on both participants and the communities they serve around the world.

But voluntourism comes with a large price tag, meaning that what may have started out as good intentions have morphed into a trendy and expensive way for wealthy Westerners to give back. This mindset exacerbates socioeconomic differences while perpetuating a Western ethno-centric worldview in addition to an inflated sense of the West’s ability to “save” or “fix” less fortunate communities.

“There’s this idea that is in-built in voluntourism that we in the West have the knowledge and the skills to make a difference, we have a right to make a difference,” said Nichole Georgeou, co-author of “Looks good on your CV: the sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education,” in an article for Reuters.

However, more often than not, voluntourists do not end up benefitting communities in the long run as many volunteers, despite perhaps having a good heart, do not possess the proper skills to adequately meet a community’s needs. For example, as Jacob Kushner points out in a blog for the New York Times, few volunteers know how to properly construct a building. But while construction skills can be easily taught, setting up something as complex as a sound education system takes years of hard work and expertise—not just a few days, weeks or even months of volunteering. And even those organizations and professionals who dedicate their lives to combat poverty and its associated difficulties sometimes make mistakes. The Red Cross, for instance, came under fire when accusations that the half a billion dollars the organization raised for disaster relief after the earthquake in Haiti was misspent.

Moreover, studies have shown that voluntourism can have a myriad of negative impacts, and even cause real harm. Often volunteers, who spend thousands of dollars to fly somewhere in the world to “make a difference,” end up taking jobs away from locals who needed those few weeks of employment with a decent wage. Moreover, a South African research study found that voluntourism, where participants act as caregivers for orphans or for children whose parents can’t support them, has become so popular that orphanages deliberately subject children to poor living conditions to elicit bigger donations from volunteers. Similarly, another study showed that the popularity of “orphan tourism” fuels child trafficking where children are kidnapped and placed into orphanages. And the constant turnover of volunteers have been linked to attachment disorders in children.

Granted, not all voluntourism is bad. Some voluntourism organizations are doing consistent and sustainable work around the world and some volunteers do have specialized skills like medical or surgical skills that a community needs. But the industry is not regulated and there are no mechanisms to hold them accountable for the work they claim to do. So before jetting off to make the world a better place, it is imperative to do the necessary research on how foreign charities are working (or failing to work). Because, sometimes the best way to really change the world is to simply cultivate a better understanding of a place’s people, its culture and its history.


Michelle Bao is a student journalist at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She is passionate about learning new languages, traveling and telling stories about people who are changing the world. Follow her @MichelleBao27.

Volunteer with Congolese children by Valeriya Anufriyeva via Shutterstock

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