On Voluntourism

Content not available.
Please allow cookies by clicking Accept on the banner
Pin It

Image Source

I recently came across an interesting article problematizing voluntourism and assessing whether it does more harm than good in communities of the global south. It reminded me of  my own concerns with voluntourism that originated in my college years in which I had participated in ‘Alternative Spring Breaks.’ It was considered an ‘alternative’ to what most college students did on their vacations: spending idle time by the poolside. The university-organized trips sent students to spend a week in disadvantaged and poverty stricken communities to volunteer. This could take the form of teaching English at the local school, assisting in building and beautifying new homes for residents, or environmental cleanups. Interspersed throughout the week were also touristy getaways and souvenir shopping. Although I had memorable and rewarding moments, I could never shake off the feeling that it was all a bit too self-congratulatory and disingenuous.

Voluntourism almost always involves a group of idealistic and privileged travelers who have vastly different socio-economic statuses vis–à–vis those they serve. They often enter these communities with little or no understanding of the locals’ history, culture, and ways of life. All that is understood is the poverty and the presumed neediness of the community, and for the purposes of volunteering, that seems to be enough. In my own experiences also highlighted by the author of the article, this has led to condescending and superficial relationships that transform the (usually western) volunteer into a benevolent giver and the community members into the ever grateful receivers of charity. It makes for an extremely uncomfortable dynamic in which one begins to wonder if these trips are designed more for the spiritual fulfilment of the volunteer rather than the alleviation of poverty.

I couldn’t help feeling ashamed at the excessive praise and thanks we received from locals and those on the trip alike. I cringed as we took complimentary photos with African children whose names we didn’t know. We couldn’t even take full credit for building the houses because most of the work had already been done by community members. In fact if anything, we slowed down the process with our inexperience and clumsiness. And how many schools in the West would allow amateur college students to run their English classes for a day? What had I really done besides inflate my own ego and spruce up my resume? I had stormed into the lives of people I knew nothing about, I barely engaged with them on a genuine level, and worst of all, I then claimed that I had done something invaluable for them all in a matter of 5 days (of which most of the time was spent at hotel rooms, restaurants, and airports).

An entire industry has sprouted out of voluntourism as it increases in popularity, possibly equal to the increase in global inequality. As the gap between rich and poor widens, so to it seems, does the need for those of the global north to assuage the guilt of their privilege (paradoxically, guilt only seems to deepen as many realize the illusory effect of their impact), or to simply look good. The developing world has become a playground for the redemption of privileged souls looking to atone for global injustices by escaping the vacuity of modernity and globalization. 

But does this address the root institutional and structural causes of the problem?  I do not mean to  deny, across the board, the importance of the work voluntourists do. Volunteers in developing countries do fund and deliver great programs that would not happen otherwise but the sustainability and the effectiveness of the approach is what I question. Time and energy would be better spent building real solidarity between disparate societies based on mutual respect and understanding.

Instead of focusing on surface symptoms of poverty, volunteers and the organizations that recruit them should focus on the causes that often stem from an unjust global economic order. Why not advocate and campaign for IMF and World Bank reforms? How about having volunteers advocate for their home country to change aggressive foreign and agricultural policies (such as subsidy programs)? This might seem unrealistic but the idea is to get volunteers to understand their own (direct or indirect) role in global poverty. The idea is to get volunteers truly invested in ending poverty, and not simply to feel better about themselves.

Enhanced by Zemanta
Ossob Mohamud

Ossob Mohamud

Ossob is from Somalia and was born and partly raised in Doha, Qatar as well as Virginia, USA. She is a recent graduate with an international politics degree. Ossob hopes to one day see a thriving, independent and self-loving Somalia and Africa.
Ossob Mohamud


Couldn't fetch latest tweet.


  1. Profile photo of IdaHorner says

    I have been giving some thought to the issues raised in your post Ossob. Our Community project in SW Uganda is mostly funded by voluntourists and without them we would not have achieved as much as we have done. This includes a school built from scratch and provides education for 460, 20 taps of clean water, mosquito nets to 250 homesteads and now a community health centre.

    I wrote about one of those volunteer’s contribution here http://www.lethemhelpthemselves.org/news/our-volunteers-at-work-alan

    When the project got started the idea was that it would be self sufficient as there were no expectations of government funding. The starting point was bed and breakfast accommodation for which the guests would pay and that money would go into community projects. The guests would also be taken on the various Safaris around the country, again the profit from this would be ploughed back into the community.

    The experiences you write about, on the whole boil down to the host organisation and how well they prepare the visitors and plan the activities that the visitors will engage in. Get it wrong and there is disappointment either side.

    We often get visitors who choose to ignore our advise on appropriate behaviour, we had local councillors complaining about drunken behaviour , inappropriate dress etc. This is something we warn against but some amongst our visitors simply ignore our advice.

    But done correctly voluntourism has scope to impact development. This is because the money goes directly into local economies. In our example, the visitors travel by local buses to make the 6 hour journey from the capital to the project. Once there, most of their holiday money is spent within the village or nearby towns. They consume local products and shop locally.

    But I do take your point in so far as badly managed programs leading to poor experiences. Interestingly some locals have sought to take advantage of “naive” visitors. A man from a nearby village to where we are in Uganda, used to turn up at our project under the guise of taking the visitors on a village tour which included an orphanage, it turned out that the so called orphans were in fact his own children and those of his relatives.

    He simply wanted to make money out of the visitors!
    IdaHorner recently posted..Bridging the Gap for African Women In BusinessMy Profile

    • Profile photo of Ossob Mohamud says

      Thanks for your comment Ida. Your absolutely right, the voluntourists you work with provide valuable funding for vital projects in that Ugandan community since, unfortunately, the government is nowhere to be found. You do inspirational work and I would like to acknowledge that! I had a lot of difficulty in writing this post precisely because of the complexity you raise. It is not a black and white issue, although I may seem to make it so in this post. I can’t possibly deny the benefits of voluntourism. But I also cannot ignore the negatives, which ultimately to me, outweigh any positives. The root of the problem is that because of our poverty and our weak and incompetent governments we have to rely on entertaining and creating rewarding experiences for Westerners or other privileged foreigners as a source of revenue. That gets under my skin because it perpetuates, albeit subtly, post-colonial relationships and reinforces age old stereotypes. Much like India has become a place for rich foreigners to ‘find themselves’ so to has Africa become a place for one to feel better about oneself. I fail to understand how parading voluntourists around our villages does anything concrete and revolutionary to genuinely alleviate poverty. If anything it inflates inferiority and superiority complexes of the receivers and givers. It deepens that centuries old divide of us as spectacle and them as spectators. Its wonderful that some organizations ensure intensive cultural sensitivity training and recruit conscientious and thoughtful volunteers. But I feel that is not enough and more effort should be spent on holding our governments accountable and vigorously advocating and campaigning for better resource distribution so that projects get funded and implemented. At the end of the day, no one is more invested in improving the situation of themselves and that of their country than the actual African. Volunteers and voluntourists are there one day and gone the next. How can we empower locals to agitate for their rights? How can we, as your organization is aptly called, let them help themselves? Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in global cooperation and some problems cannot be faced alone. But cooperation on the level of the UN or state to state assistance is what I have in mind, not a group of travelers wanting to have a good time. Basically, I’m interested in whether this fad in development is sustainable and effective. I just don’t feel convinced that it is.

      • Sianga Kuyan says

        Dear Ossob, I am a Maasai from a very traditional remote village in Tanzania. Over the last 10 years I have come across a lot of volunteers and voluntourism programs. I agree with IdaHorner that volunteer programs can benefit communities at the very local level, especially through supporting local economies. There isn’t much that achieves this at the local level in Africa – not even mainstream tourism, which is often run by rich, wealthy foreigners or rich, wealthy locals who do not distribute wealth. I disagree that all voluntourists are there one day, gone tomorrow. I have seen many form lasting relationships with families, sponsoring children and education for many years afterward. And I am convinced, now I have spent years overseas, that after having a personal experience with local communities, many volunteers/voluntourists are more likely to agitate for broader development rights. They are more likley to be interested in what the UN is doing as a result of their experience. I’m not saying that there are not problems with voluntourism. But local communities are not the passive agents that you make them out to be in the voluntourism transaction and to purport this is doing a disservice to these communities and people. I’m really not sure of your argument Ossob – it seems you are saying that voluntourism is responsible for local communities not agitating for their rights or the UN not being more impactful. I don’t really see how the two are connected. Multiple paths are required for development, and in many villages, voluntourism has been very effective in providing schools and boosting local economies. No, it is not a tool that will get local communities to lobby the UN (which most of them haven’t heard of) or corrupt governments. It does not mean that other paths are not needed or it is a replacement for other important development activities. I really don’t understand why there is so much bother about it in the development community. There are far more harmful things going on with foreign investment than with a bunch of voluntourists who believe they can make a difference. But I suppose the average commentator on this subject, usually a white person or wealthyh African, does not go out and rough it in local communities much to see what is going on, do they?

        • Profile photo of Ossob Mohamud says

          Thank you Sianga. You make excellent points. Of course rural communities are not passive and I hope I didn’t imply that. What I do believe though is that the power dynamic between locals and voluntourists is naturally skewed and it paints villagers as passive receivers. This is fact. Voluntourists come in precisely because they are more ‘skilled’ and supposedly have more to offer than what the villagers can do for themselves (some are not even skilled at all but it seems that simply being white or educated abroad confers those credentials). What I believe is that Voluntourists don’t really do anything significant and life altering. They help of course but they don’t dramatically change poverty. That is my central argument Sianga. Voluntourists are not there to alleviate poverty, yet that is precisely what they claim. Do we really need to see foreigners ‘roughing’ it in local communities? Or do we need serious, thought out, sustainable and effective methods of tackling poverty? I’m interested in the latter. You say that voluntourists become engaged with development work after their experiences. But I just don’t see enough evidence of that. If anything, they leave with a more simplified understanding of poverty, as something that just requires a school built or an English class taught. Poverty is more systemic and has sinister roots in oppressive external and internal economic and political realities. Regrettably there is little interest in fixing those among voluntourists. Yes your absolutely right, there are different pathways for development. But Voluntourism isn’t and shouldn’t be one. Lets be honest about its purposes. Westerners need to feel good and we take advantage of that to pay for what we need in our local communities. Sounds good, everyone gets what they want. But I personally feel that the whole business is wrong. That’s just me. Its a gut feeling I cant get rid of. But I’m glad this has started a lively discussion. Clearly people feel very strongly about this :)

  2. Brian Sullivan says

    Thankyou Ossob for your thought provoking article. I enjopyed your articles reminder since I am interested in assisting Tribal people in Madhya Pradesh, After three years there, I have been asked to help encourage tourism from Australia there. I cannot comment on Africa, but like you realise howcrucial it is to empower people to be able to make decisions for their own future and to be able to hod volunteers and NGO’s accountible.

    Of course, lack of sensitivity is very much a problem even by well meaning people. I often thought I was being polite when infact I offended someone! At times I felt overwhelmed as a visitor. While my Indian experience is not Africa it has helped me make a beeter effort to help African Refugees who have a community centre in my area of Australia.

  3. says

    Dear Ossob!
    Its my belief that your article on ‘Voluntourist’ was too simplistic and it fails to fully grasp the concept of voluteerism or the vital role of motivation in human behaviour in work scenarios. Volunteering might be unpaid work but its not ‘Thankless Work’!

    Albeit volunteerism may be about getting individuals to work without pay. However it doesn’t insist on robbing volunteers of the joy that comes with experiencing a new location; meeting new people or learning about new cultures! As a matter of fact, these so called tourist experiences are means of promoting greater understanding and tolerance in a fractious world!

    The third world should stop insisting on playing the victim when very little is done from within to uplift the welfare of citizens. I’m always suspicious of any hint at a puritan ideology; as human history and modern day is awash with heinous crimes being perpetuated under such guise.

    Volunteers are not saints or martyrs neither is volunteerism about perfect intentions; JUST GOOD INTENTIONS!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge