The Lies of Voluntourism

February 7, 2017
By ClaraSavchik BRONZE, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
ClaraSavchik BRONZE, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

Imagine waking up every day wondering where the next meal would come from or if there would even be another meal. For more than half of the of the world’s population, these scary thoughts are a reality, surviving on less than a meager $2.50 per day (“11 Facts”).  As startling facts like these become increasingly apparent in more developed countries, people are realizing their great privilege and advantage over much of the rest of the world and are searching for ways to give back to help end global poverty.  One form of charity work that has become increasingly popular among developed countries, especially in the United States, is voluntourism.  Simply stated, voluntourism is a system of charity work in which tourists travel to impoverished areas around the world to not only explore and immerse themselves in a new culture, but to volunteer and help local communities (“Travel”). Nonprofits and travel agencies alike have deeply embedded themselves in this trendy new form of volunteering, but this system of charity comes with many unforeseen drawbacks.  Despite common belief, some forms of voluntourism are an ineffective system of charity that must be stopped because they contribute to the breakup of families and exploitation of children in impoverished societies, allow unskilled volunteers to steal employment from struggling communities, and rarely leave a lasting impact on the poverty-stricken society.

Voluntourism causes families to fracture and orphans to be treated as mere tourist attractions.  This is due to the fact that the voluntourism industry focuses largely on supporting orphanages in developing societies.  After all, who would not feel self-gratification by helping cute, needy children?  However, because of a high demand from voluntourism to support orphanages, many orphanages have become corrupt, lucrative businesses that treat children like attractions in a museum (Mulheir).  For example, in Nepal, a popular voluntourist destination, it is estimated that around 90% of all orphanages are located in areas strongly concentrated with tourists (Moran).  Presumably, these unethical businesses thrive under the support of the naive voluntourists.  Another startling aspect of these orphanages unknowingly fueled by voluntourism is that they traffic and exploit children to garner as many orphans as possible in order to maximize their profit.  To demonstrate the reality of these orphanages, UNICEF estimates that a shocking 85% of orphans in Nepal still have at least one living parent (Moran).  While some of the kids may have been legitimately turned away from their guardians, many parents living in developing countries willingly give up their children to orphanages, in hopes that the orphanage will provide a better life for their child.  However, the orphans can purposely be neglected and kept in sub-standard living conditions in order to elicit additional donations from the voluntourists (Mulheir).  Not only does voluntourism fuel a system that hurts both families and children alike, but the actual voluntourists who help at these orphanages often cause emotional and psychological trauma to the orphans.  The kids are never able to develop a sense of stability in their lives with the voluntourists constantly cycling through the orphanage each week, causing many of the orphans to develop attachment disorders (“Orphanage”).  Subsequently, voluntourism is the fire that fuels unscrupulous orphanages, so what good are the voluntourists really doing for society if this is the real effect of their hard work and donations?

Not only does voluntourism exploit families and children in impoverished societies, but the inefficient system of charity also hurts the local economy.  Construction projects are one of the most common jobs given to voluntourists eager to help a poor community.  However, the fundamental issue with impoverished societies is often that they are too poor to afford the needed building materials, not that they have a lack of people willing to work on construction projects (“Voluntourism”).  In fact, according to Economy Watch, a website focused on the overall state of the global economy, creating job opportunities in impoverished areas is one of the best ways to lift people out of poverty (“Unemployment”).  However, voluntourism has the adverse effect.  The system gives the much needed employment to foreign volunteers, hurting the economy by stealing jobs away from the poor locals who are in desperate need of work (“Voluntourism”).  In addition, voluntourism causes, in some cases, people in the poor society to actually quit their jobs. For example, this was observed first hand by volunteers of the Samaritan Foundation in the Dominican Republic who noticed that as they gave out handouts more frequently to the people, domestic workers began to quit their jobs and depend solely on the free supplies.  This is because the people working were gone during the day when volunteers distributed handouts, so they missed the opportunity to collect the free materials (“What”).  However, this increase in unemployment negatively affects the local economy by keeping the community in an eternal cycle of poverty, as they are continually dependent on the goodwill of volunteers for survival. Finally, the handing out of supplies and food that the volunteers provide has a negative impact on the economy in its own right.  When the local people become too dependent on the free aid, local businesses start to hurt.  The community receives everything they need for survival from the volunteers, and no one would rather pay for their necessities if there is a way to receive them for free (“The Dangers”).  Basically, local business is diverted by foreign products brought to the community by the voluntourists.  As a result, the local economy is harmed because it can never grow if the small businesses cannot survive, let alone make a sizeable profit (“Unemployment”).  As well as damaging local economies, voluntourism proves ineffective in nature in that it rarely leaves any lasting impacts on the destitute population.

One of the fundamental issues with voluntourism is that there is too much of an emphasis on creating an enjoyable experience for the volunteers that the service aspect can become ineffectual. Voluntourists want to volunteer in interesting, usually faraway places, so there are many hidden costs that add up, such as room and board, which can make each trip cost thousands of dollars (“Voluntourism”).  As a result, vast amounts of money are lost by simply paying for travel and living quarters for the volunteer that could have been simply sent directly to the impoverished society.  After all, foreign money injected into a poor community’s economy has been hailed for decades as one of the best ways to overcome the savings gap in developed areas (“Unemployment”). However, through voluntourism, so much money that could be used for foreign aid is spent on expenses for the volunteer instead, diminishing the economic impact for the amount of money spent by the volunteer (“What”).  Furthermore, voluntourism leaves little influence on the community at hand because the voluntourists’ projects are usually chosen in their best interest in order to give them the greatest sense of accomplishment, rather than in the best interest of the poor society (“Voluntourism”). For example, Daniela Papi, founder of a nonprofit charity in Cambodia, describes her voluntourism experience in Thailand saying she “traveled with a tour company that decided to allow us [the volunteers] to paint the school [a poor school in Thailand].  We painted it poorly as we rushed to finish it in one day. We probably spent over $200 on paint alone,” (Papi).  Clearly, the tour company gave Daniela a project that she and the other volunteers could finish in one day, so despite their short time in Thailand, they could feel a strong sense of accomplishment from their work.  However, as Daniela stated, they spent around $200 on paint alone, all of which could have been directly donated to the school, but instead was used to paint the school house. How would painting a school house help lift a community out of poverty in the long run?  Clearly it does not because the project provides no stimulation to the local economy, but the voluntourism industry is more worried about pleasing the consumers of their business than actually leaving a lasting impact on the society (Papi).  Furthermore, voluntourism allows unskilled volunteers to complete service projects that require skilled workers in order to effectively complete the job.  Hailing from developed countries, voluntourists usually have little to no experience in labor intensive activities, like construction, which they are commonly working on in poverty-stricken areas. It is like asking a toddler to do taxes; the toddler simply lacks the necessary skills to complete the task. For example, Pippa Biddle of the Huffington Post describes her ordeal while volunteering in Tanzania stating, "Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students, were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. . . . Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there” (Biddle).  Clearly, the projects are done very poorly because the voluntourists have never been exposed to this nature of work and leave little impact because the people of the society may have to redo the projects themselves later. 

Opposing views of voluntourism claim that the system of charity, despite its flaws, is better than no charity work at all. Their argument is based around the fact that without voluntourism, impoverished countries are missing out on free aid and willing volunteers to help them.  Admittedly, there are some positive aspects of voluntourism that can provide benefit to a poverty-stricken society, but overall, voluntourism has so many inefficient aspects, that stopping voluntourism can be better than practicing it.  As stated previously, voluntourism has the power to create more harm than good by allowing corrupt orphanages to flourish since they are fueled by the naïve tourists’ donations voluntourism is wasteful, spending precious funds on impact-less projects and travel fees for the volunteer. In addition, voluntourism is wasteful, spending precious funds on impact-less projects and travel fees for the volunteer.  Clearly, people fail to realize that more harm than good can come out of voluntourism with all of the unexpected outcomes of the system.

Everyone wants to help make the world a better place, but voluntourism is not the answer. This ineffective system of charity contributes to the breakup of families and exploitation of children in impoverished societies and allows unskilled volunteers to steal employment from struggling communities and rarely leaves a lasting impact on the poverty-stricken society.  The voluntourism industry is more focused on creating a pleasing experience for the volunteer than actually making a difference in impoverished areas.  Many flaws must be worked out with voluntourism before it can be deemed a viable combatant to global poverty.  In order to take action against voluntourism, the business must be boycotted until some of its clear issues are resolved.  Meanwhile, people who desire to make a change in the world should donate money to known credible charities or nonprofit microloan organizations, such as Keva (kiva) and Grameen America (grameenamerica).  These charities directly stimulate an impoverished area’s economy by allowing locals to borrow foreign money to launch their own businesses (“Unemployment”). People should not lose faith in charitable organizations, but rather use clear-eyed judgement and careful research in order to make the greatest economic impact that they can within impoverished societies.

Similar Articles


This article has 0 comments.


MacMillan Books

Aspiring Writer? Take Our Online Course!