Voluntourism does more harm than good

Not all forms of the popular practice are bad, but ignorance makes it easy to exploit kind-hearted individuals


Ally Nguyen, JagWire editor-in-chief

According to Project Abroad, “voluntourism” is the combination of volunteering and tourism in which they implement “long-term, sustainable solutions and work directly with local communities.” While this sounds good on paper, in practice, the methodology of travel companies and other non-governmental organizations needs to be reformed in order to minimize the unintentional harm done to these communities when outside sources step in.

My heart is warmed by the altruism of volunteers ready to spend their vacation performing labor-filled or mundane tasks. However, many of them don’t research the company they’re giving thousands of dollars to. This leads to the exploitation of kind-hearted individuals through the creation of for-profit non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, posing as well-intentioned charities. For example, research done by the Human Sciences Research Council uncovered that the popular voluntourist act of caring for children in orphanages has actually harmed residential children in South Africa. Due to the increasing interest in helping seemingly underprivileged children, some orphanages intentionally subject the children in their care to poor living conditions so volunteers are inclined to donate more money.

Additionally, according to Save the Children, travel companies rarely run background checks on the volunteers they place in orphanages, thereby creating an unsafe environment for them. In fact, journalists from Al Jazeera were able to pose as tourists, and take four orphans out of a Cambodian orphanage for a night. While this is a disheartening display of manipulation (that unfortunately worked), it does lead to the next point.

Oftentimes, those volunteering are untrained and unequipped to handle the jobs they’re performing. I’m not inclined to believe that those who struggle with math are able to build a structurally sound school building —  but they’re trusted to if they have a few thousand dollars and a plane ticket. Additionally, the thousands of dollars voluntourists pay to build a school, could just as easily be used to support the local economy by hiring natives to the area.

Voluntourists are the short-term relief used to try and stop long-term problems. Afterall, even if the school stands tall well after it’s built, how can these volunteers guarantee the school will receive enough funding to hire teachers through the next year (when the voluntourists come back for their yearly vacation)? I adore the effort to do more than donate a dollar while buying your groceries, but before you partake, please analyze both the benefits and the costs — and for the love of all that is good, please do some research.

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