The Good and Bad Side of Voluntourism | Everything You Need To Know

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Are you interested in volunteering internationally? It may seem like the perfect combination to do good and explore a whole new country and culture at the same time. This term called voluntourism is booming and is seen to be controversial or irresponsible. This post has everything you need to know about the good and the bad of voluntourism.

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This subject was widely discussed during my Bachelors Degree and it’s something that always stayed with me. Something I always remember. Today, I’m telling you everything you need to know about voluntourism before doing it. I included some other resources and articles as well, so you have the opportunity of creating your own opinion and vision.

What is voluntourism?

You may already have a good idea about the definition of voluntourism. In short, voluntourism is the term for volunteering internationally. People combine travelling with volunteering for a short amount of time. You’ll do work related to education, health care, agriculture and other areas. Think of projects where people built schools in Asia. They come from all over the world and range in age making it a popular phenomenon among all travellers. 

scooters in a local market somewhere in marrakesh, morocco

The bad side of voluntourism

So why is voluntourism bad? Why do people think it’s controversial or irresponsible? There’s a big “but” to the hype of voluntourism. 

Voluntourism is a very complicated system. There’s the claim that travellers unrightfully think they made a big difference in just a couple of weeks time. People who sell services and products related to voluntourism usually hype it up this way. The reality is: a couple weeks does not make a difference. The system is usually already broken. When the education system is broken, when kids don’t get the right to go school, if they’re not equally treated – building a school is not suddenly changing this system. As much as we’d love it, building a school does not create equal rights for children. That’s a statement we need to keep in mind. 

Read more: What Is Conscious Travel | Let’s Talk About Conscious Travel

Furthermore, there are some nasty stories about the behind-the-scenes of local tourism. I read a post from Huffington Post where they tell a horrible story. It describes how families were told and sometimes paid, to send their kids away. Their kids would live at orphanages with available education and health care. Obviously, if you’re a parent, this sounds absolutely amazing. Lots of parents agreed to it, thinking their child was going to have a better life and brighter future. 

However, the orphanage took pictures of the children and used it to receive money from other countries. They made it look like the children were saved from horrible situations, so people would feel bad for them and donate money to orphanages. In reality, the children were abused and didn’t get education at all. This happens in a lot of countries. 

women on a local market in sierra leona, local culture, community

If done wrong, voluntourism financialises these types of organizations. They don’t tell the entire story. Companies selling these voluntourism trips let the travellers pay for the trip and this money goes to the organizations as well. It encourages the organizations to keep on running these types of businesses because they can make a profitable business out of it.

Read more: The Ultimate Guide To Responsible Tourism | 20 Easy Tips To Be A Responsible Traveller

As ugly as it sounds, this is the reality. People do crazy things to get money, even portraying the image of saving children to the outside, while actually abusing the children behind the scenes. For innocent travellers who look to volunteer, this behind the scene story may never get revealed to them. They think they did something good, helped the children in getting a better life. That’s the reason why people claim voluntourism is irresponsible and controversial. 

I wanted to tell this story to give it more of a visual example. It’s hard to explain the behind the scenes stuff behind those organizations. I know it’s sad to read. It was the only way I knew how to completely explain the story so you know what might be going on. Disclaimer here, not all organizations do this. I’ll tell you more later on. 

Some other points about why voluntourism is bad are:

Volunteers don’t have the acquired skills. This is one of the biggest arguments against voluntourism. I mentioned the example of building a school before. You and I could go on a volunteer trip to build a school. However, I do not have the knowledge and skills needed to build a school. As a result, the school might be poor quality, not safe and it will only cost the community more energy, time and even money to properly build the school. This almost makes your work as a volunteer invaluable. Did you really help the community? 

You won’t make a difference in a few weeks. Like I said, a few weeks is not going to make a difference. This is why short volunteering trips, a few weeks for example, are too short to actually make a difference. Some volunteering trips are only a few days. That’s all way too short. 

It disrupts the local economy. Volunteering comes from a good place of heart. To do something for someone else, to do good, is such a good quality to have. A downside of voluntourism is the disruption of the local economy. The volunteers could leave locals out of a job: let’s look at the school example again. Volunteers are way cheaper than a local employee, so the volunteer could get the job of building the school which leaves the actual builder out of a job. 

Read more: 8 Beneficial Ways To Support Small Businesses in Travel

How can we do good with voluntourism?

As I briefly mentioned, not all voluntourism is bad. It requires lots of research and knowledge to find a good organization and a good cause where you can and will make a difference. You need to know the right questions to ask. 

Research the voluntourism organizations. This is most important. Do your research extensively. Try to find key articles and information about the organization. In addition, try to find information about their industry (like the orphanage) to know what might be going on behind the scenes. The organization could be 100% legit and perfect to volunteer for, but you want to make sure it is! 

three man on a bicycle during sunset, palmtrees, indonesia, view

Only volunteer for jobs you’re skilled for. Like I said before, building a school when you don’t know how isn’t the best option. However, we gain skills every single day and we’re all really good at something. Find that skill, search for a volunteering position and you’re good to go! You will actually bring lots of value to the community. 

Read more: 11 Easy Tips To Reduce Plastic While Travelling

Do your culture research. It is incredibly important to make sure you know the culture. You don’t want to unintentionally offend anyone, simply because you don’t know the etiquettes about the culture. It is a great idea to research the culture before you go. It ensures you know what to expect and won’t be unpleasantly surprised. Read my post about how to deal with different cultures.

Support the locals. Tourists alone make a huge positive impact when they stay locally, shop locally and eat locally. The local community offers so much and they benefit from us when we pay directly to them. Especially if you’re there for a longer period of time – it will seriously help them! Read my post about how to support the local community.

Voluntourism isn’t just good or bad. If you do it right – it’s a wonderful good thing to do for the community, the animals, the planet or any other important factor. Do your research, follow these steps and you’ll create a good impact with your volunteering. 

Have you ever thought about volunteering internationally? 

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good and bad things about voluntourism, everything you need to know, volunteering internationally, facts about voluntourism
good and bad things about voluntourism, everything you need to know, volunteering internationally, facts about voluntourism

5 comments

  1. This is such a different and refreshing post! I believe this is a big issue that a lot of people don’t think about. On one hand our influence is big but on the other hand it doesn’t always means it is positive too! It is so important to do a proper research as before I just couldn’t (didn’t want to) believe that such things exist! Then I read also the story about street beggars with children/babies and how they drug them sometimes to look even sadder. Felt to horrified! Important to be aware of these things 🙁

  2. Thanks for detailing the pros and cons of this type of activity. My hubby and I have thought of doing a voluntourism focused trip but have yet to pull the trigger. I appreciate reading your point-of-view.

  3. This is really interesting – to be honest I hadn’t given it much thought before but I always wondered how people would go to third-world countries to build, dig, etc. Such a shame that people will take advantage of another person’s generosity and scam them into thinking they’re doing something good. Great things to think about and be aware of.

  4. I was always moved by the fact that people volunteer to teach various languages, cultures and a lot more educational stuff during their travels. And on a lot of times, when I actually got a chance to interact with these people, I actually found that they lack skill and knowledge. And to however cool it may sound, these guys are actually attracted to the idea of volunteering. And your blog reflects on the “not so known” side of volunteering, as a business that is widespread and makes a lot of money. Thanks for sharing this post!!

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