Voluntourism: how a booming industry has real world consequences

Combining volunteering with tourism often harms rather than helps disadvantaged communities

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few individuals have placed more emphasis on the imperative to help those in need than Peter Singer. In Famine, Affluence, and Morality, he famously drew a moral equivalence between failing to engage in philanthropy and refusing to jump into a pond to save a drowning child right before one’s eyes. The importance of charitable giving has become largely mainstream.

In public discourse over the past few decades, the clear moral benefits of “doing good” for those in need have accompanied massive increases in social impact activity, including philanthropy and “effective altruism.” However, one such activity in particular has skyrocketed. The booming industry of “voluntourism,” or volunteer tourism, offers travel opportunities associated with social impact volunteering, such as teaching English or building houses in an earthquake-affected region.

If going on vacation while tangibly changing the world sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Short-term projects stifle the agency of developing countries to develop sustainably, perpetuating systemic power dynamics that hinder the potential for self-driven projects. Interrogating some of the assumptions behind Singer’s initial claims reveal that such “do-good” activities often actually fuel the systemic conditions that give rise to poverty and other social problems in the first place. Voluntourism has a few key features: a limited time frame (“vacations” don’t last more than a few weeks, a couple months at most), an extremely high turnover rate (volunteers flow in and out in a continuous stream due to the short time frame, and do not participate in any type of formal handover), and a relatively low barrier of entry (for example, you do not have to be a professional or have any engineering background to participate in house-building projects).

Combined, these characteristics can actually generate more harm than good. There are two broad problems with the voluntourist model: the sustainability problem and the amateur problem. Firstly, the short time frame and resulting high turnover rate is very detrimental to long-term sustainability. Teaching English for two weeks rather than investing in resources like textbooks renders structural change impossible and makes a school totally reliant on volunteer teachers. Even if the teaching quality is high, this means that potential teachers from the local community become crowded out.

Secondly, the amateur problem: the only criteria potential volunteers really need to meet are having good intentions and being able to afford a plane ticket to the destination. This means that development projects often lack much-needed expertise: constructing homes without an engineering background, or even teaching without any training, can render poor quality services with very little accountability. Ultimately, this means that “voluntourist” projects disproportionately benefit privileged individuals, who put such activities on their resumes and social media profiles after contributing very little aside from a short period of time and a questionable knowledge base.

However, it is important to note that volunteering is not inherently problematic. There are several criteria a volunteering organization can meet in order to promote good, sustainable practices. By accepting trained professionals to work in a placement for at least a couple months, organizations can combat both the sustainability and amateur problems. Furthermore, hosting volunteers with local families could provide real opportunities for cultural engagement, combating the insularity that results when volunteers stay in accommodation together with very little interaction with people from the community. Discussing one’s work with the stakeholders who are affected by it is a powerful way to gauge one’s impact and get feedback in real time. Further, collaboration with stakeholders on the ground, such as local NGOs rather than large Western volunteering organizations, can significantly mitigate the effects of harmful power dynamics.

As international travel has become more accessible in the past few decades, those privileged enough to fly have truly caught the “wanderlust bug.” Travel has become something of a universal passion, a way to explore and encounter new people with no prerequisites aside from a plane ticket. By capitalising on this desire to travel, the focus of “voluntourism” shifts away from the real needs of the charity sector. Development is a field that requires technical expertise, cultural understanding, and sustained periods of time. It is important to leave such projects in the hands of experts in close collaboration with locals, rather than conflating it with feel-good tourism.

Individuals can donate to charitable organizations, provide professional expertise pro bono, or spend a slightly longer time volunteering with a local NGO and living with a host family. All of these options would have a more meaningful and sustainable impact than voluntourism. Ultimately, Peter Singer provides a compelling case that we should help those in need. Yet how remains an open question, one that is absolutely critical in determining how to deliver tangible material benefits that can last.