Volunteer tourism: no good deed goes unpunished

Those who volunteer their time to work with disadvantaged children are often exploited by the organising companies, a practice that needs to end

It’s pretty common at university to be bombarded with images of smiling friends helping poor and clearly suffering orphans somewhere in Africa for a week, then going on safari, ‘teach and get a tan’. The problem arises from that fact that all too often it is only the corporations organising the opportunities who benefit from volunteer tourism.

This past summer, I was lucky enough to act as a long term volunteer for a small charity working in Sri Lanka. Part of my job was to take new volunteers to the state orphanage, a place to which a number of global volunteering agencies send their volunteers. The kids here are barely clothed, sleep in metal cots with no mattresses and receive little human contact for the vital first few years of their lives. No matter how many times I saw the same scene, the outcome was the same; I had to leave the dark room with over eighty cots because my happy western upbringing had left me totally unprepared for children crying out for attention and basic provisions. Quite aside from the problems surrounding clearly disabled children in an unsuitable environment, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the money that these volunteers raised, as it clearly wasn’t going anywhere near these children.

Working as a volunteer, you do have to come to terms with your limited capabilities to help other people. But when young people, fresh out of school, and about to move away from home for the first time want to spend their money helping others they deserve better than a corporation that ultimately exploits some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Volunteer tourism has become big business, but having experienced firsthand the bit they don’t show in the happy photos on their websites, it is hard to see the philanthropic nature of certain big volunteering companies.

Even these photos have caused debate: codes of conduct for non-governmental organisations working in the third world give clear guidelines about the type of images allowed on volunteering websites; the “universal icon of human suffering” spreads ideas of the helplessness of the third world as a whole. The tourists would be saving instead of empowering. Images of volunteers coming in and saving a group of society is simply not allowed and homogenises human experiences, creating victims.

I’m not disputing the good intentions of volunteers; it is the work of these large organisations which is part of a larger issue of humanitarian identity. I have met some amazing people who have really benefited the life of children in a few weeks as volunteers. They know precisely where their money goes, and ultimately, their impact as teachers outweighs the inevitably painful goodbyes at the end of their short but life changing experience. However, when you are paying a corporation to give you the experience of a lifetime, it is time to question where the money really goes.

I am incredibly proud of the ability of girls who I worked with to emerge from this environment and come out relatively unscathed, to still be able to challenge and teach me, as well as communicate with each other. They are not victims, they are children. They, and all the other disadvantaged children, deserve to benefit from the good intentions and money of those volunteering to work with them.


  1. I think this raises important issues, not just of organising companies, but of the effectiveness of charitable work and why people volunteer in the first place.

    Rather than raising money to volunteer abroad and have to pay for expenses such as flights, why not just donate it? You can help far more people by carefully selecting which charities to donate to rather than travelling abroad yourself.

    But then, I suppose it depends whether people volunteer abroad because they actually want to make as big a difference as possible, or whether they’re primarily doing it to boost their CV.

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  2. I think this is a really important viewpoint to take.
    There are so many companies that offer volunteering abroad, and we have to ensure volunteers are making a positive difference in the countries they visit.

    If building a school takes away a paid opportunity for the local residents that DO have the skills to do it, or doesn’t as a result train local residents in the skills they need to build – Then we’re not being much help at all.

    Companies that offer volunteering MUST be sustainable, they must be empowering local communities, not using their situation to create business.

    My inner tourism Graduate shudders when I see “volunteer companies” that charge massive fee’s and include flights and accommodation in the fundraising total. In my eyes, fund-raising for your own personal gain is deceiving and shouldn’t be encouraged. Why fundraise £3,000 for a trip abroad for your own enjoyment/CV when you can donate that directly to the charity? But that seems to be the norm now. Volunteering is becoming a profit making business and it’s sad to see.

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