Essential Reading on Voluntourism

With international travel from Australia still a year away, now is the perfect time to educate yourself on why you shouldn’t spend your next trip volunteering overseas.

Picking up a hammer, piece of chalk or spade to help people in the countries you visit shouldn’t be an option in our post-pandemic world. There is enough evidence out there and people with lived experiences to recognise that locals are best placed to solve the issues in their communities. They are the subject-matter experts, they know the community and the culture best, and they are can provide consistency and long-term support.

To help you on your learning journey, I have collated a list of resources that can be watched, read and listened to during your morning tea breaks.


These documentaries provide insights into the issues associated with both voluntourism and orphanage tourism.

The Voluntourist

“Voluntourism, the intersection of volunteering and tourism, is often criticised as doing more harm than good to local communities. In this documentary, we ask volunteers why they decided to volunteer, how their experience is going and if they think they are having an impact on local communities.”

Cambodia’s Orphan Business

“Increasing numbers of tourists including well-intentioned volunteers keen to help war-torn Cambodia are volunteering in the country’s orphanages. Volumes of research around the world have shown that orphanage care is associated with long-term psychological concerns. People & Power investigates the concept of “voluntourism” which is inadvertently doing more harm than good to Cambodian children, as well as the disturbing trend of exploitation by some companies that organise volunteers or run orphanages.”


Good Will Hunters: The Other Side of Volunteering

A deeply important, conversation about why short term, unskilled volunteering often does more harm than good. I chat with the host about the need to change the narrative around volunteering, to be more aligned with principles of local-ownership and sustainable livelihoods.


The Business of Voluntourism: Do Western Do-Gooders Actually Do Harm?

“A holiday helping out in an orphanage can be a rewarding experience. But voluntourism supports a system that is breaking up families.”

Covid closed our borders to international help after a cyclone, but showed us locals are the best first responders

“No aid agency could or should just turn up at a village in Vanuatu without consulting community leaders. Ni-Vanuatu aid workers have ways of speaking to elders and chiefs that build trust and two-way dialogue.”

Why Surgeons are Rethinking the Fly-In Medical Mission

“Rai and Dingman were traveling together in Nepal. “We had lots of time to talk and speculate about the future of medicine and the role of our group,” Dingman says. Over a quiet dinner, Rai with great patience and logic explained that the best treatment for a poor patient in Nepal should come from an indigenous surgeon trained, equipped and funded to provide such care — and available for follow-up. Dingman was inspired by Rai’s logic and passion.”

So, You Want to Build Me a House?

“Some of these house building programs are ridiculous. Of course these foreign volunteers can’t build very good houses, they have never done anything like it before. One house that I saw looked alright when the volunteers left, but after one big wind it became completely misshapen. Just one gust of wind did that! Can you imagine, with all the extreme weather we have in Cambodia, what kind of poor shelter that house would provide? Fortunately almost everyone in Cambodia knows how to build a house, so once the family has said goodbye to the volunteers they usually just rebuild the house themselves. There is only one reason that families accept volunteers coming to build a house for them, and that is that volunteers bring money with them, and money equals power. If you have money you can do whatever you want, no-one will dare to say no to you.”

The Problem with Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism

“White people aren’t told that the color of their skin is a problem very often. We sail through police check points, don’t garner sideways glances in affluent neighborhoods, and are generally understood to be predispositioned for success based on a physical characteristic (the color of our skin) we have little control over beyond sunscreen and tanning oil.”

“There Were Locked Rooms Full of Stuff”: My Experience As an Orphanage Volunteer

“Looking back on it, the company I went with was helpful on the front end but there was no sense of transparency. I know how much I paid for my trip, but I have no idea how much of that money actually went back to the orphanage. Of the money that did go to the orphanage, little if any of it actually went to help the children, as I believe that the owner of the orphanage kept most of it.”

The Cost of Volunteering: Consequences of Voluntourism

“Most frustrating about my time spent working in the FIMRC clinic was the visits by Christian youth ministry trips. Groups of about 30 high school aged students and chaperones would come by private bus every day to build part of a new office for the local nurse. Along with their construction project, they would also bring suitcases full of donated goods to distribute to the community. We were often asked to translate for the group because there was seldom a member that could speak sufficient Spanish. They would gather a group of community members to hand out the presents, sing songs in English, tour the village to take pictures, eat snacks, and leave after a week. This was ultimately detrimental to the work being performed by the FIMRC clinic as often when walking down the road or conducting home visits with the intern or manager, community members would expect lavish gifts from us as well. For example, the paediatrician on staff would complain that mothers would demand cough syrup at the very minimum every time they visited the clinic, regardless of their child’s condition.”

And be sure to share these messages on social media….that’s the best way to educate others!