Voluntourism: The Challenging Ethics of Responsible Travel

A picture containing three people, outdoor, wearing shirts that say "VOLUNTEER" on them.

The international volunteering industry has a complicated ethical terrain. It’s a tangled web of beliefs, techniques, and approaches to development and assistance. It’s also at the heart of any conversation about volunteering. As voluntourism becomes more culturally embedded as a normal part of life, it’s becoming increasingly vital for every new volunteer to thoroughly assess the ethical consequences of doing so.

Although the concerns mentioned in this blog post apply to all volunteer initiatives, whether domestic or international, international volunteering is particularly relevant. There is a concept that plagues much of the volunteer sector. It’s based on the notion that foreigners (not just those with the White Savior Complex, but anyone wanting to solve development problems outside of their own society and culture) can readily solve problems in other countries.

Currently, I believe that a lot of volunteer travel is providing short-term remedies to complex problems. Yet, when we don’t see long-term development results, we’re disappointed. Not only are we failing the volunteers we send overseas, but we’re also failing the communities they’re supposed to be serving.

Ethical volunteering is a complicated topic that cannot be fully addressed in a single blog post, hence if all this appears to be more simplistic and condensed than you expected, that’s probably a good thing. That is, in fact, the point. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already figured out that the problem is more complicated than simply picking a respectable project and hoping for the best. It’s complicated, there’s ambiguity, and there’s never a one-size-fits-all solution.

A picture containing me and a resident at the orphanage I volunteered at in high school.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I spent two weeks at an orphanage in Haiti’s Nord region. I hoped to provide them with individualized attention, and I spent most of the day with one or two children at a time, taking long walks about the grounds. I’d read them stories, sing them songs, and play games with them until they were exhausted. As I flew back to the United States, I pondered whether I had made a lasting impact on their lives. I now realize that I most likely did leave something with the kids: a sense of abandonment. Many of the children in that orphanage already had abandonment issues. If it was hard for me to leave these children behind, was it any harder for them to see me go? What about the next adult who arrived in a few weeks? What about the next one? They may discover that there are plenty of others who adore them and will walk with them. They did, however, also discover that such people always leave.

Orphanages have been found in numerous studies to cause more harm than help in the development of children. They have also demonstrated the importance of youth growing up with families, whether biological or adoptive. As a result, most Western countries no longer have orphanages within their borders. Volunteering with orphanages in the developing world, however, continues to be popular.

This article from the Huffington Post reports on how Haitian parents were told – and even bribed – to send their children to orphanages where they would get medical treatment and education. They consented, believing their children would have a better chance at the orphanage. The orphanage then posted pictures of the children on the web to raise money from all across the world. The children recalled being mistreated, starved, and forced to do heavy labor instead of going to school after being rescued.

In other nations, such as Nepal, Cambodia, and Uganda, similar incidences of child maltreatment and/or unjustified family separation have occurred.  You can learn why Projects Abroad decided to end orphanage volunteer placements here.

Before you volunteer in any capacity, you should first think about the issues of dignity and dependence. Is the organization’s mission (whether it’s a small local business or a large volunteer company) about preserving the dignity of all members of the community? Is the organization meeting the community’s actual and articulated needs (rather than perceived needs) and empowering them to build a long-term, self-sustaining community that is not dependent on overseas volunteers to thrive?

According to research, even the  COVID-19 pandemic has altered the landscape of worldwide volunteering. The International Forum for Volunteering in Development conducted a survey in February 2021 of 130 volunteer organizations and 239 international volunteers. It was found that the pandemic has prompted volunteer organizations to offer more remote volunteering opportunities and consider expanding national volunteer membership in the future. Translators without Borders, for example, rely on volunteers not only to translate but also to design graphics and raise funds.

Dr. Chirs Millora, a scholar originating from the Philippines and now located in Norwich, England, UK, led research for the United Nations’ 2022 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report. According to him, “The pandemic has shown us there are different innovative ways volunteers are able to provide services.” This might result in a “paradigm shift as to what kinds of relationships international volunteer organizations have toward local communities.” That’s a significant step in an industry beset with criticism.

Don’t let any of this deter you from volunteering. Before committing to help, volunteers simply need to be aware of potential pitfalls and conduct additional research on organizations and their programs.

What should I remember if I want to be an ethical voluntourist?

  • Pick a cause that you care about and then research, research, research!
  • Don’t lend your flaws; lend your strengths. If you have no experience building a well, you should not attempt to do so.
  • Opt for an organization that collaborates with local workers rather than displacing them.
  • It is critical to focus on long-term development.
  • Think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Are you searching for instant gratification when it comes to your social media posts? Do you wish to impress your family and friends by appearing courageous or compassionate? Or do you have a genuine desire to help people in need? Examine your intentions and your heart.




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