The Voluntourism Trap

Children bathing in contaminated water in Cambodia. (Photo: Mio Cade)

Much as moths are drawn to a flame, middle-class travellers are being coaxed into deceivingly “charitable” ventures abroad. Here they pay homage to the rising epidemic of “voluntourism” commonly known as guilt trips. These excursions are an opportunity to merge travel with volunteering, adventure with redemption. Volunteering sidles up alongside the trip of a lifetime, a cultural exploration in which naïve individuals can return home with a sense of independence and worldliness. It’s a heavily romanticised undertaking which, perhaps surprisingly, has negatively impacted some of the world’s most vulnerable societies.


Projects frequently involve building, teaching, conservation and human rights activism. Often these opportunities are heavily marketed by travel companies whom are profit driven and charge tourists to participate. Voluntourism’s sudden popularity has seen this type of holiday become commonplace in many a gap year plan; therefore to mount a defence against the repercussions of such ventures, organisations such as UNICEF have publically denounced them.

Voluntourism highlights a growing issue that developing countries face, which is of foreign intervention perpetuating a dependency culture

In light of most gap year students honing neither the skills nor expertise to contribute to development projects it’s unsurprising that their schemes are unproductive. Because of the limited involvement of tourists in the projects, developmental work is unlikely to progress at a tangible rate. The progress of building schools or wells is largely stunted and locals see little benefit in the tourist’s presence. It is of more interest to travel companies to pamper volunteers so they might recommend the trip to a friend, than develop infrastructure for a community.


Voluntourism highlights a growing issue that developing countries face, which is of foreign intervention perpetuating a dependency culture. Western tourists play the role of caregiver by paying money to spend time in organisations that have risen purely out of misfortune – for example orphanages. This creates an issue of supply and demand and businesses have exploited this. For example it is widespread knowledge that many children housed in Nepalese orphanages are not actually orphans, as many as 3/4 have been recruited from the community by people whom see them as commodities.


Friends International whom started a campaign against orphanage tourism rightfully quoted that “Orphanage tourism lays children open to exploitation, puts them at risk through unregulated visitation and fuels bad practise in relation to residential care.” The involvement of tourists in orphanages and schools is largely unregulated. Because there are no criminal records checks there is no means of shielding children from adults whom could abuse them. The lack of child protection within these orphanages is unheard of in the west, and therefore should raise suspicions.


In orphanages where there is a rapid turnover of staff, the traditional care structure required for normal childhood development is eroded. Children will repeatedly lose the important relationships they forge and risk struggling with abandonment issues. A further problem of voluntourism is that of tourists taking jobs from people in the community. Tourists are by large culturally incompetent and lack the expertise to do the kind of work which is essential in development programmes. Despite this tourists unashamedly take work from proficient locals whom could otherwise provide the long term commitment required.


Articles criticizing voluntourism have frequented many newspapers and have been met with fierce opposition. Many people believe that volunteering of any kind is beneficial; there are many organisations abroad where western volunteers are valuable assets and pioneer tangible results. The main difference between successful and unsuccessful voluntourism projects is the level of commitment participants give to the cause. Short term contributions requiring little skill level will not achieve progress in line with the funds allocated.


A better way to fund the economy of a developing country, and thus allow them to pull themselves up out of poverty, would to be to contribute as a paying tourist. By putting money directly into the hands of locals you cut out the middleman and impact an individual’s ability to support him or herself. Another means of challenging global poverty would be to debate your country’s foreign policies or even contribute to a charity. Better still would be to acknowledge vulnerable people in your own community and volunteer locally.


It’s natural to want to alleviate suffering, yet the way to do this is not necessarily through voluntourism. It is not a short term achievable goal. Instead we must appreciate the problem of poverty as the larger picture it is and spend more time looking for ways to tackle it.