Voluntourism: selfless or selfish?

The first time I heard of the term ‘voluntourism‘, I was completing a public health internship in a small Ecuadorian town near the jungle. I was there with missionaries and healthcare providers from the West who came and went, supplementing the local staff at a small hospital. Like everyone, I had the best of intentions when I arrived.

However, weeks passed and I interacted rarely with the locals. In fact, I lived in a nice duplex behind a compound with a fence and gate that locked every night– a stark contrast to the surrounding poverty and crumbling infrastructure. This was not the experience I was hoping for.

It made me deeply uncomfortable and raised questions I hadn’t confronted yet- was I making a positive impact by volunteering abroad? Was my presence an act of neo-colonialism? Was I hurting the very people I was trying to help?

I’ve volunteered abroad many times since then, and often wrestle with the same questions. I think this is important. It’s wonderful to be altruistic, but we must also do our research and be cautious.

Unfortunately, some for-profit companies can take advantage of both the volunteer and the organization they are supposedly helping. Many act as a middle man, charging a very high fee for the volunteer that may not be shared with organization. In other cases, it’s been reported that orphanages may purposefully keep children who are not really orphans (or who have relatives who would like to care for them) in poor conditions to attract foreigners’ sympathy and their money.

If voluntourism is to benefit those in need, we need to ask the hard questions: What is our intention? What’s the lasting impact our presence will make in the community? What are the political and economic systems in place that keep some countries poor and others wealthy? Would it be better to find a different project or donate our money instead of our time? How do cultural and historical factors play into our experience?

voluntourismIn spite of its challenges, I don’t believe the critics who say it’s better to stay home rather than participate in 
voluntourism. The world is more connected than it has ever been. That opens us up to new opportunities and advantages we’ve never had before.

Teaching music lessons at an education foundation in Ghana, learning how to surf in the Philippines, herding sheep in Estonia, or even helping out at orphanages that are genuinely contributing to the wellbeing of their local communities. These are experiences literally at our fingertips.

If we neglect to learn about the people and places around us, we’re likely to remain fearful of our differences instead of celebrating our uniqueness.

I believe voluntourism can be a doorway into a more purposeful and connected way of life.

voluntourismAs humans, we’re more likely to care about something we have a personal relationship with. Statistics and numbers become faces and names. Poverty, war, and far-away politics become personal- because we have friends who are affected, because we’ve stepped into their shoes, because we remember what it was like to live their reality. This can lead to deeper compassion, empathy, and perspective. I think this is important not just for our individual growth, but for our planet as a whole.

What I appreciate about Workaway is that it presents a unique form of voluntourism. Local hosts and families open their doors, asking for the specific kind of help they need, rather than volunteers assuming they know best. There is no middle man, and no outrageous fee. Instead of a ‘top-down’ mentality of one person being the helper and the other being helped, the focus is on building relationships and cultural exchange.  

From personal experience, it is far more rewarding to participate in this kind of volunteering- with humility, openness, and gratitude for the hospitality being offered with open arms. 

11 replies
  1. Elena
    Elena says:

    True volunteering (exchange skills and labour for food, board, knowledge and experience) is a way to win-win for all parties involved. Just beware of lots of touristic scam on this scene. I.e. offers like pay a big chunk of money to “organizations” to do volunteer work, often at volunteer expense.

  2. Tehana Payne
    Tehana Payne says:

    I don’t think it needs to be marginalised into 2 categories, you either sit there sharing the articles of atrocities around the world and do nothing to contribute to the bigger problem or you become a part of the solution. A part of the movement, spreading love and truly understanding gratitude.

  3. Varvun Kampi
    Varvun Kampi says:

    I was on juvenile jail in tazania volunteering and it was part of my school studies. There was a voulentourist. A really ritch man from US that worked in bank. No education what so ever to be with youngsters. I think he made more harm then good there. A ritch man comes there as a tourist becouse has has so much money to experience and see their poordom. I think its disgusting and not respectful toward the real ppl there living real life.

  4. Heidi Iverson
    Heidi Iverson says:

    I think you missed the point of the article… it’s irrelevant how much you paid if it’s for your good feeling and/or you are doing no real good (or do harm) to those who need help in the area you are traveling to.

  5. Zuzanna Oplustil
    Zuzanna Oplustil says:

    Hi, I did the volunteer programme and I spent on it almost 5000 EUR that I am still paying back to my bank after 3 years. I could have cheaper ‘vacations’ but I wanted to join this mission and involve in local problems during longer time. Anyway we were accused by locals to come and treat their problems as attraction. Without our help their problems probably won’t be solved ever. There is always someone unhappy trying to say bad things about good intence 🙂 As long as people are willing to help I see nothing bad about it.

  6. Erin Sapp
    Erin Sapp says:

    Well, I can only speak from my experience. I was fairly sheltered, had never traveled out of country, and didn’t have any skills that were particularly applicable at the time other than a reasonable command of the Spanish language. The reason I went was, in part, selfish, because I wanted to create a dialogue with people who were in need of help, and see the situation with my eyes. I can say that my experience encouraged several positive changes in my life that will benefit my local and global community. I’m learning skills that will make me a better volunteer (minus tourist) in the future. There were certainly people in my group who just wanted to look cool and have fun. I hope even they got something out of it. The main gain was meeting people, learning how they think about things, and fostering an attitude of growth. I may have been more use simply by the money I paid to be there, but it was an invaluable experience for me.

  7. Regina Di Lemniscata
    Regina Di Lemniscata says:

    No one thinks in selfish, at least, consciously. Many times I saw the uncomfortable contrast between locals and some volunteer. Called clothes, electronics, attitudes of first world. Or sometimes a selfie with a poor child. That’s is terrible, because you mark a real difference with others for your aspect. At soon we can talk about neo-colonialism.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.