In Defence of ‘Voluntourism’

Voluntourism is not just white middle class guilt in action.


Summer’s on its way, which means one thing: your Facebook is soon to be bombarded with photos of friends volunteering in ‘third world’ countries. Smug social media posts aside, I want to offer a defence of what has been labelled ‘voluntourism’. A recent article on The Tab Exeter attacks volunteering students for ‘attempting to cure your middle class guilt’.

I found it overwhelmingly negative and unnecessarily so. The author criticises the ghastly idea that some people actually want to ‘get active and do something’ and even manages to slip in an entirely irrelevant and aggressive attack on privately educated students and their ‘private vineyards in the south of France’.

Many forms of volunteering can have long-term benefits for the local communities

Many forms of volunteering have long-term benefits for the local communities

It is worth mentioning here that I agree with three of the author’s arguments. Firstly, she is right that some of the trips are daylight robberies, costing students an extortionate amount of money. Secondly, volunteering abroad is never an entirely selfless good deed. The prospect of being able to add to one’s CV is certainly a motivation for some people, as is the opportunity to do a bit of traveling and see some beautiful places. Finally, there are some volunteering projects that are counter-productive. A lack of training means that some people who volunteer to build an orphanage for example have no experience or knowledge of how to do so. Instead of clueless students, local, skilled workers should be employed on such projects.

However, given that they are unlikely to work for free, one can understand the temptation to turn to westerners, where volunteers by the thousands are eager to help out. Now let me address all that is wrong with the article.

Doing some of the tourist activities can allow volunteers to blow off some steam in their free time

Tourist activities allow volunteers to blow off some steam in their free time

The author criticises the fact that most volunteers go to work in another country and, god forbid, combine volunteering with tourism. The prospect of  visiting some of the cultural attractions in the region is obviously going to appeal to students, and why not? Volunteering trips are not only opportunities to help out. They are also a chance to see a completely different way of life and more often than not will be combined with sightseeing of some sort. As long as volunteers are honest with themselves about the real motivations for their trip and are not deluded in thinking that their work will change the world, then I find it hard to criticise them. At least they are trying to do something constructive with their money, rather than spending it on a booze-fuelled week of hedonism in ‘Maga’.

Don't judge your volunteering friends if you're going to end up somewhere like here this summer

Don’t judge your volunteering friends if you’re going somewhere like here this summer

I do not deny that there are problems with the volunteering industry (mainly that the work can sometimes prevent the development of self-sufficient economies), nor do I believe that volunteering is going to tackle the structural causes of poverty. I also accept that there are some kids who pay thousands of pounds and travel halfway round the world with the intention of getting wasted and returning with a nice tan and cover photo to match.

This guy got a nice tan.

This guy got a nice tan.

However, one cannot place all forms of volunteering under one umbrella, because there is a huge amount of organisations that do fantastic work. For every project that is unhelpful or even damaging, there are many others that offer invaluable support such as teaching English, from which locals benefit greatly. As well as the project work, simply being there means that one will make a contribution, albeit a small one, to the local economy by paying for accommodation, travel, food and drink.

Some people claim that students fly over, do their work, then bugger off home with a sense of self-righteousness, safe in the knowledge that they have ‘done their bit’. Studies have shown however that those who go on such trips are far more likely to end up donating to charity and volunteering locally when they return.

Wholeheartedly rejecting the benefits of volunteering abroad is an ignorant approach and is often a symptom of people trying to make themselves feel better about sitting on their backsides and doing nothing to help.

It's easy to sit at your computer and criticise people.

It’s easy to sit at your computer and criticise people.

If projects are well thought-through and students are candid about what they are trying to achieve, then ‘voluntourism’ can benefit both the recipient country and the individual. Instead of writing off such projects as inherently harmful, we must engage in a dialogue that seeks to improve their long-term sustainability. Downright negativity is boring and futile. Let’s change the debate.