I was recently chatting with someone about why I don’t support voluntourism. This person wanted me to explain it to her through Instagram, and it was in that moment that I realised I didn’t have my answer written down in the one place, so anyone can quickly understand the basics.
Voluntourism is short-term volunteering overseas. It can involve painting houses, teaching English, making meals for street children or planting vegetables, amongst so many other tasks. Helping people isn’t a bad thing; we definitely need more of it in the world. However, we need to be more critical of how we do it. And as a former volunteer coordinator who managed these short-term programs I witnessed first-hand the issues that these volunteering stints causes. So here we go, a quick guide to why I don’t support voluntourism.
1. Locals are best placed to solve the needs of their community
Ask yourself why you are best placed, as a foreigner, to solve the issue of child marriages in Nepal, or female genital mutilation in Sudan, or why you should be building a house in Thailand. In the vast vast vast majority of cases, the people who are best placed to solve these issues are local staff. They know the culture and the community best; they know what has worked and what hasn’t worked and they are there for the long-term.
2. Working with vulnerable people requires a unique approach
People who are vulnerable or experiencing trauma need to be worked with in a sensitive manner. The best people to do that are local people who can provide consistency and ongoing support; they also know the language and the culture. We may not realise it, but when we volunteer in schools and communities in countries like Cambodia we are interacting with people who are living in difficult situations; and we can unknowingly worsen that trauma with our words or actions. Not to mention the attachment issues that can be caused due to a revolving door of voluntourists.
3. It sends the wrong message
For far too long, the narrative of ‘third world countries’ being ‘helpless’ has existed. Voluntourism amplifies this belief, as it perpetuates stereotypes about people who come from these countries as ignorant, lazy, irresponsible and unable to solve their own social issues. This isn’t the case; people from lower income countries are innovative, resourceful and resilient and can achieve a lot with limited resources.
We are inadvertently sending the message that development can’t happen without hands-on help from foreigners, which simply isn’t the case.
4. Voluntourism is a short-term solution to a long-term problem
Voluntourism is short-term. People may help at organisations for just one day or a few weeks. But most issues are long-term problems. That house you build? Who will take care of the maintenance. That class you teach? Who will provide consistency. Those trees you plant? Who will take care of them when you are gone.
When change comes from the local community, it instils a sense of pride and ownership. Local communities must be invested in the process of development, because if they aren’t, the chances of the programs succeeding or change being permanent is very low.
What about long-term volunteering?
Even long-term volunteering needs to be approached with caution. If you want to know more about this, have a look at my long-term volunteering checklist.
How else can I help?
You can be an ethical traveller (when it is safe to do so!) Here are some tips on how to be an ethical traveller.
I want to know more
Then read my book! You can purchase a copy here. Learn from my mistakes so that you don’t have to make them.