The Issue With Voluntourism

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Voluntourism – volunteer tourism – refers to travel to mostly to developing nations, generally Africa, South America or Asia, during which citizens from western countries volunteer whilst travelling, carrying out work such as building schools or water wells, teaching at an orphanage or in certain cases, working in a medical facility. Voluntourism disrupts the local economy by taking work away from locals, whilst at its core, voluntourism perpetuates the neo-colonial legacy [1] of the ‘under-developed’ nations requiring the intervention of a ‘white-saviour’ in order to ‘escape’ poverty.

Following Ghana’s independence in 1957, the first president of an independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah defined neo-colonialism [2] in his book ‘Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism’ in 1965 as “the concept of neo-colonialism warns us of the potential regressive impact of unregulated forms of aid, trade and foreign direct investment in relation to poverty reduction and wellbeing in African countries.“ The book received a fierce global political reaction, during the height of the Cold War with Nkrumah’s presidency ending the following year after a being overthrown in a military coup, backed by the USA government.

By simplifying the problems faced by developing nations to that of voluntourism project staples such as a lack of clean water wells or western English teachers, voluntourism undermines the very real issues facing those who spend their lives working in the acutely delicate and extraordinarily difficult sphere of international development both at home and overseas.

Nigerian author Teju Cole in his extended essay ‘The White-Saviour Industrial Complex’ [3] critiques the self-driven concerns of many voluntourism projects by suggesting that (Africa) “Is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike saviour or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied.”

Voluntourism and Exploitation

Voluntourism enables mostly young school/university graduates to work overseas in projects they may (and most often are) vastly underqualified [4] for and offers many generally middle-class almost always white [5] young people the opportunity to expose themselves to hardships and struggles they may only have witnessed on television specials or campaign adverts. Thereby, presenting a one-dimensional perspective of the country in which they are working.

Almost half [6] of the major voluntourism charities in the USA do not measure their long-term impact data with a large number of organisations tracking no data at all. Seasoned voluntourist come reformed anti-voluntourism advocate, Pippa Biddle, drew attention the subject on a mass scale when she wrote an article [7] for The Huffington Post describing her experiences volunteering in Tanzania at 16. Referring to her group of privately educated teenagers that paid $3000 for the experiences, Pippa recalls how a ‘group of little white girls’ spent 6 hours a day building a wall for a school library, with no previous building experience between them, only to witness local builders re-building the wall during the night and waking up to find that the programme was to continue as if this hadn’t happened for the duration of the placement.

One of the most popular environments in which international volunteers may undergo their overseas placement is within orphanages. We touched on the problems of volunteering at orphanages overseas in our article about human trafficking, recognising the fact that many children in orphanages not orphans at all but re often trafficked there under false claims that they will gain access to better education. It’s not orphanage trafficking that’s the only issue, the short-term nature of volunteer placements can often cause further emotional and physiological harm to children who may have previously been separated from parents or loved ones whilst many orphanages offering volunteering placement have little to no child protection measures in place.

In 2012, undercover Al Jazeera journalists [8] arrived at an orphanage and claimed they were volunteers in Cambodia, one of the most popular destinations for orphanage voluntourism, and were able to take 4 children out of the orphanage having shown no papers or identification. The orphanage in question had received a number of complaints from previous volunteers, all placed through well known voluntourism organisations.

The of Voluntourism and Volunteering Ethically

Generating a global worth of $2.6 billion per year[9] voluntourism not only disrupts economies in the countries directly affected by this industry but by maintaining stereotypes of developing countries as places in need of white saviours to iron out their respective problems, voluntourism negatively impacts the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals [10] by encouraging a culture of short term fixes for long term problems which is enacted throughout many volunteering organisations.

With most voluntourism packages costing around £2000 for a 3-4 week long trip, and anything from £0 to £250 of that fee actually making it to the charity or organisation at which a volunteer may be working, companies that offer these placements stand to earn a lot whilst the beneficiaries of the projects are left hosting underqualified young people with already limited resources.

Should you wish to travel overseas believing you have a valuable skills set which can offer a long term and sustainable impact to the community in which you volunteer, then contacting organisations directly is a more reputable way to ensure that you’re not being offered a position beyond your means for a fee you shouldn’t be paying. If you can offer genuine assistance to a charity or organisation, you can expect to pay for your own travel and in some cases accommodation/food whilst living there.

Voluntourism Checklist

Remember when embarking upon any overseas work placement to ask yourself the following:

  1. 1. Would I be offered this job in my home country and if not, why?
  2. 2. Have I researched the organisation or charity I am working with? Do I know where their funding comes from and what they’re doing with it?
  3. 3. How does the organisation prevent risks to the local economy by hiring volunteers? Check with previous volunteers if their work was well structured and purposeful.
  4. 4. Find out what the sustainable development plans are for the project and if it will be sustainable after you leave.
  5. 5. Do I have an understanding of the social, cultural, economic and political situation in the country I plan to travel? If not, ask yourself if you should be travelling to this country as a tourist or a worker.


  1. [1] Blum A. Volunteer work as a neocolonial practice – racism in transnational education [Internet]. Taylor & Francis. 2017 [cited 12 April 2019]. Available from:
  2. [2] Langan M. Let’s talk about neo-colonialism in Africa [Internet]. Africa at LSE. 2019 [cited 11 April 2019]. Available from:
  3. [3] Cole T. The White-Savior Industrial Complex [Internet]. The Atlantic. 2012 [cited 11 April 2019]. Available from:
  4. [4] Purvis K. Volunteer travel: experts raise concerns over unregulated industry [Internet]. the Guardian. 2016 [cited 12 April 2019]. Available from:
  5. [5] Client or Volunteer? Understanding Neoliberalism and Neocolonialism Within International Volunteer Health Work [Internet]. SAGE Journals. 2019 [cited 12 April 2019]. Available from:
  6. [6] Riddick S. The Importance of Measuring Volunteer Impact [Internet]. 2019 [cited 11 April 2019]. Available from:
  7. [7] Biddle P. The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys And Voluntourism [Internet]. HuffPost. 2016 [cited 11 April 2019]. Available from:
  8. [8] Ruhfus J. Cambodia’s Orphan Business [Internet]. 2012 [cited 12 April 2019]. Available from:
  9. [9] Questions raised about benefits of volunteer tourism [Internet]. ABC News. 2019 [cited 11 April 2019]. Available from:
  10. [10] About the Sustainable Development Goals – United Nations Sustainable Development [Internet]. United Nations Sustainable Development. 2019 [cited 11 April 2019]. Available from:

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