Is Voluntourism a Dirty Word?

Teacher training at Project Why

Teacher training at Project Why

You’d think that giving up a few hours for a good cause while you’re on vacation would be a positive thing, but despite its apparent virtue, voluntourism sure comes up against a lot of criticism. Is it just miserable onlookers determined to complain about everything or is there actually a negative side to donating your time to a charity while you travel?

For those who aren’t too sure, voluntourism is exactly what it sounds like – a blend of volunteering and tourism. Normally arranged through agencies in your home country, a voluntourism trip typically lasts two or three weeks and involves plenty of sightseeing as well as a few days working with a local cause. For those with more time to spare, specialist agencies organize long-term placements lasting from one month to a full year, though it’s not just time you’ll need an excess of – these trips will typically set you back $2000-3000 a month.

Altruism, selfishness or a shared experience?

So just why do people criticize this seemingly philanthropic way to spend your summer? Well, first of all, the volunteering stints that travelers do on their whirlwind trips can be short – sometimes as short as a day or two. Many people question how much of an impact you can really have in such a brief spell, though I tend to think that even an afternoon spent trying to help and learning a little about local issues is better than another afternoon on the beach. If your time is limited, one type of project you might consider steering clear of is anything involving direct contact with children. They quickly become attached to newcomers and if you disappear just two days after arriving it could do more harm than good.

Tutoring Tibetan refugees in northern India

Tutoring Tibetan refugees in northern India

Another common criticism is that voluntourism is really just a way to make travelers feel pleased with themselves. Naturally, any act of charity comes with a side-order of feel-good, but I think it’s unfair to suggest that volunteering is a one-way street. Sure you’ll be proud of yourself (surely no bad thing) but while you take something away from the experience you’re bound to give a little back at the same time. It might be that you help to save an animal, teach someone a couple of English phrases or even just put a smile on a stranger’s face. No, volunteering is not an act of altruism, but neither is it an act of selfishness – it’s a shared experience with mutual benefits that don’t stop at goodwill acts. The opportunities for learning something new are immense for both parties.

Some voluntourists have been slammed for forcing their culture on the host community without considering the impact it might have on local traditions. I’m sure it happens, but most travelers who choose to volunteer are keen to experience the local culture – just as locals are often thrilled to learn about another country. I was recently at an event organized by an NGO working in Palestinian refugee camps and one point that stuck with me was how enthusiastic the kids were when it came to learning about foreign lands – perhaps something that’s not high on the educational agenda. Anyone who complains that volunteers are inflicting foreign culture on the host community is forgetting that most people love learning about another way of life as much as they enjoy teaching outsiders about their own.

All you need is…money?

Helping clear up an oil spill, South Korea

Helping clear up an oil spill, South Korea

So far the criticisms are petty points of view that are easily countered, but there is a bigger issue that concerns charity and tourism watchdogs – money. It’s often been said that the agencies organizing voluntourism trips are more concerned with profit than any positive impact their clients might have. And you wonder how much of the huge fee ends up where it’s most needed – in the hands of the local charity you’ll be working with. I recently read that well over half of the fee you fork out remains with the agency in your home country – a figure that make most people think twice about volunteering at all. Plus, from a volunteer’s point of view, the hefty rates charged are often prohibitive to the budget traveler. So many times I’ve heard people say that they’d love to do some volunteering while they’re away but just can’t afford to. When you start to think about it, it’s pretty ridiculous. You’re already donating your time – should you really have to shell out a few thousand dollars for the privilege as well? Truthfully, no, you shouldn’t and if you can be bothered with some hardcore research you don’t have to. And let’s face it – if you can’t make time for a few hours rummaging around the web, you’re surely lacking the dedication to actually carry out a volunteer placement.

Organizing your own placement is obviously not the easy way, but if you can deal directly with the charity, you cut out a lot of administration and therefore a lot of money. Plus you can guarantee that the cash you do spend is going straight where it’s needed. For seriously deflated rates some organizations will collect you from the airport, house you with a local family and even feed you a couple of times a day. Or if you want to be totally independent you can perhaps save even more cash by arranging your own place to stay. If you choose to follow this route, it’s important not to listen to any of the agencies in your home country, who’ll tell you that you have to arrange your placement before you set off. Of course, they just want your cash – I mean, what kind of charity is actually going to turn you away if you’re knocking on their door offering to work for free? (A notable exception here is wildlife and conservation organizations – it’s rare to find a free placement where big game or rare species are involved).

Going it alone

A farewell photo - Tibet Charity, McLeod Ganj, India

A farewell photo – Tibet Charity, McLeod Ganj, India

If you can just find them, tens of thousands of NGOs across the globe are desperate for your help – they might not be able to pay you, but they sure aren’t going to charge you. It’s just a matter of tracking down the details since the smaller charities usually can’t afford international advertisements and many don’t even have websites. Google searches for ‘volunteering in Cape Town’ return nothing but pricey mediators, so how do you get hold of the local charities that really need your help?

Guidebooks can be a good start as many list local organizations that welcome help from travelers. But of course you’re best research tool is the web – just be prepared for hours, if not days, of intense trawling. Start off with a search for NGOs in your chosen country or city. Trial and error will eventually lead you to a list of charities and most likely one of them will result in a life-changing volunteer placement. To contact them you might have to go a bit old school – getting on the phone or even (horror) writing letters. But eventually you’ll find a cause that can really use your valuable vacation time, even if you can only spare a couple of days of your trip. (See the links below to get you started on the search for a charity that won’t charge a small fortune).

For the intrepid the other option is to simply turn up on a whim, knock on doors and hope for the best. You could be setting yourself up for a fall, but if you stick to solid traveler spots (hippie hangouts like Kathmandu and Dharamsala are recommended) you’d be pretty unlucky not to score a fee-free placement. Then you can spend that extra cash supporting yourself so that you can help out for longer – or just donate it directly to the cause.

So it seems that the answer to the critics’ gripes is to step back in time to before the agencies (or the word ‘voluntourism’) existed and arrange your goodwill trip unaided. Then if anyone dares to throw criticism your way, hold your head up high and tell them you’re not a voluntourist – you’re a voluntraveler!

A few links to get you started

Tibet Charity welcomes English teachers at their school in northern India. Teachers are needed for classes of adult learners, mostly Tibetan refugees. There’s no placement fee and a hearty lunch is thrown in to sweeten the deal. There are also openings for veterinarians and IT teachers. www.tibetcharity.in

The African Child Foundation is a Uganda-based NGO offering placements to anyone who wants to join a community project. You have to pay a $300 registration fee but the $175 weekly payment is a pretty good deal since it includes airport pick-up, food and accommodation with a local family.

Ecoteer.com is an excellent resource for low-cost volunteering experiences. Many of their placements are free, others offer nominal donations starting at $10 per day (for which you’ll get room and board) www.ecoteer.com. There’s a £10 ($15) fee to sign up.

Rokpa runs teaching and social projects in Nepal and areas surrounding Tibet. In Nepal volunteers are needed to help in a Kathmandu soup kitchen and must be able to commit for six weeks. Qualified ESL teachers are required to teach Tibetan students around China for 6-9 months. Room and board is included in the Tibetan projects and there are no fees.

Cafda is a community project based in the Cape Flats, South Africa. At present they don’t arrange accommodation but gladly welcome volunteers to help with their social outreach programs. There’s no placement fee and your time is valued, however long you can stay.


Read more about author Lucy Corne, and check out her other BootsnAll articles.

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Older comments on Is Voluntourism a Dirty Word?

Ian Rose
21 January 2009

There’s definitely a spectrum of volunteer tourism experiences, from life-changingly good to a few that are pretty much scams. In general, I agree with you that you can do a lot of good without the price tag by just contacting NGOs directly.