Volontourism: Helping or Harming?

When I was looking for my EVS (European Voluntary Service) I considered all volunteering opportunities. If you type phrase “volunteering abroad” in Google, you will find plenty of organizations that can offer you weeks/monthly volunteering trips to exotic and developing countries. It’s getting trendier to spend summer by working with the children in need or help wild animals. Usually intentions of people are pure, they really want to make something good for local communities but in past year’s we can observe of phenomena that combines tourism and volunteering – Volontourism.


Before going on any voluntary programme it’s good to ask yourself question about ethical aspect of this travel. Am I really going to help or it’s just 4/8 weeks adventure for me? If my action would not support pathological movements like orphan business? If a few weeks of volunteering does really make sense or it can bring harm to host communities? Nowadays volontourism is kind of industry that involves travelers who work with local communities in developing countries. You don’t need to be part of any NGO to go abroad; there are already many companies who can organize whole trip for you. You don’t need to have also any work experience or specific knowledge connected to area of volunteering. What is required then? You should know English on communicative level and pay really high fee (up to few thousand dollars per month), sometimes you are obliged to cover flight costs on your own. The rest of expenses (accommodation, food) are provided but which amount of the payment goes to hosting organization usually it’s not known. Every year a few millions people use this way of travelling. The most common projects are about working in orphanages, farms, teaching English or restoring buildings. When it comes to destination, the top places are developing countries like India, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Nepal, Ghana, Uganda etc. The idea of volunteering is beautiful but it starts to remind of business which has also some dark side.

adult-aged-baby-226616Especially volunteering in orphanage is ethically dubious. This kind of activity is criticized by UNICEF or Save The Children, organizations which actively work on rights of children. In the report made by UNICEF they refer that in Cambodia the number of children given away to orphanages increased about 75%. What is terrifying, less than 30% of these children are genuine orphans. It means that children have at least one living parent. Unfortunately, families are often manipulated that children would have better educational chances in orphanages provided by foreigner volunteers. “Teachers” often don’t have any pedagogical background and rotation of volunteers might cause serious emotional disorders. Many specialists pay attention to the fact that children need professional and local tutors who will work with them for long time. Using volunteers as teachers only deprive the work for local people and increase unemployment. According to proposition of United Nations to modify the care system of orphanages and put more emphasis on surrogate families, adoption and intensive pedagogical help already in families, in many European countries, USA or Australia the number of traditional orphanages significantly decreased. Differently than in developing countries where new children’s home are still established and often kids are separated from parents. It happens that after being sent to orphanage children documents are falsified and their identities are changed. Later on, it’s really difficult for parents to track their babies.

Especially in popular destinations children are being treated like tourist attractions. Even tourists within organized tours can visit and take photos with kids. Often they leave donations or presents so for owners of these orphanages it’s way to earn some money. Unfortunately, this phenomena cause also financial malpractice like corruption. There are some reports which admit that some of orphanages were run as profit – making business and they get profits from volunteers as well as from tourists. However, the living condition in orphanages is still low and essential needs of children are not covered. Needless to say those children are in risk of abuse.

13443314874_40b5cc9001_o3803185179_30400bb7b2_oPopularity of volontourism cause that for volunteering brokers it’s hard to check the credibility of hosting organizations. That’s why it should be also in interest of potential volunteer to make accurate research for finding proper project. Going to exotic country is tempting vision but always we should think if our actions will not bring any harm. Maybe instead of working with children, you could help organizations who try to re-connect children from orphanages with their families? Or make financial donation to reliable NGO that actions in place would be more apply to local needs? Or maybe try to be volunteers in your place of living to find out if voluntary work suits to you?

So how you can find responsible project? Look for organization that is transparent and have good opinion in local community, check their accomplishments and financial reports. Avoid random places with negative opinions; they usually are tourist-oriented. Long term projects will bring more goods – first you need time to adapt yourself in new environment and if you really want to change something few weeks might be not enough. Look for project in which you will not replace professional worker, being teacher assistant for example would bring more profits. Consider your competences according to type of programme, think how you can contribute to organization and discuss this. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, decision about going volunteering should be studied and reasonable.

Volunteering is beautiful thing and really can bring positive impact on societies but it’s even more beautiful when it is aware.

Paulina Gołębiowska

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