Voluntourism – are good intentions enough?

Primary school children in Malawi. Photo: Clancy Holzgrefe

Primary school children in Malawi. Photo: Clancy Holzgrefe

The volunteer tourism market is growing rapidly with more people opting to include volunteer work in their holidays. With their relatively low-expense, exotic locations and the promise of being able to contribute in a meaningful way, it’s not hard to see why volunteer holidays – also known as “voluntourism” – are a popular option among school-leavers and tertiary students.

But anti-voluntourism voices increasingly ask whether these well intentioned people are they doing more harm than good.

As a wide-eyed 18-year-old, I set off to a rural village in Malawi to teach at a school. Like many voluntourists, I was keen to make a difference. After a short teaching course, and an in-country cultural briefing, off I went.

The experience wasn’t what I’d expected. It quickly became clear that a local teacher’s work hours had been cut to accommodate me, and my short teaching course had not prepared me for a real classroom crammed with kids. I began to question whether I was helping or harming the community and chose to return home much earlier than I had planned.

I was unprepared, but a volunteer holiday can be a rewarding and beneficial experience for both the traveller and the host community, if it’s done right.

But how do you do it right? How can you choose a program that is really beneficial to the host community?

Kent Goldsworthy, international development lecturer and volunteer tourism expert from RMIT University, says there are a few initial questions people considering voluntourism should ask themselves.

“Firstly, what is it you want to achieve? You might then ask ‘What’s the best way I can do that?’ Some might answer that by doing voluntourism, some might donate money, some might become an activist for a policy issue.”

He says it’s easy for volunteers to unknowingly cause damage to a community, which is why it’s important that voluntourism trips are carefully considered.

“People need to consider if it is possible that by doing good they can do harm. Harm doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to be violent or hurt somebody directly but, for example, if they are working for free, their free labour is cheaper than paying a local just a few dollars a day to do the thing that they are going to do.”

The organisation travellers choose to travel with is key to whether or not they have a valuable experience. With the explosion of the voluntourism market, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the number of trips on offer.

“There’s so many organisations out there saying the same thing. The challenge is to drill down to make sure that their values align with your own values,” says Maree Blackburn, marketing coordinator at Lattitude Global Volunteering.

Mr Goldsworthy agrees it is important to research volunteer travel organisations. “People need to look at how the host organisation is working and at the relationship it has with the community. They should also look at the background to the need,” he says.

Kristy Moore, adventure connector with Hand Up Australia, says the sign of a good volunteer project is that the community’s needs are put first.

“Regardless of where you go, or which organisation you go with, the key thing to think about before you go overseas is whether the needs of the community members are the number one priority,” she says. “Travellers should ask themselves ‘What would happen if there were no volunteers?'”

A volunteering experience can be enriching for a young person. It can build independence, flexibility and communication skills, and can drive greater global awareness and cultural sensitivity.

But the decision to volunteer abroad should not be taken lightly. Good intentions and a desire to help don’t always translate into a positive outcome. Careful planning and preparation are essential if a trip is to avoid harming those it’s intended to help.


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