For some, holidays are all about relaxing. For others, it is about travelling. And for others, it is about travelling…with purpose. Volontourism is a form of tourism in which foreigners typically travel to developing countries to aid vulnerable communities.

The underlying genuine idea is that free time and good intentions can go a long way in helping others. But good intentions can often do more harm than good. Volontourism is a heavely criticised practice in the humanitarian and development sectors. Why? What are the risks of volontourism?

You should never have to pay to do volunteer work

Having to pay for offering your time and skills. Sounds absurd, right? Yet, it is one of the first results you’ll get if you type in “volunteer abroad” on your browser. Some volunteering agencies charge extortionate fees and capitalize on volunteers’ good intentions. And whether these fees end up benefitting the host community is far from clear. 

Under the banner of “making a difference”, these “volontourism” agencies seem primarily concerned with selling exotic experiences to volunteers, rather than considering their actual impact on those in need. This capitalization of aid and suffering has even led to cases of exploitation of host communities. For instance, in Cambodia, children have been “loaned” from Cambodian parents to fill orphanages and attract volontourists. Volunteering should always remain true to its core humanitarian purpose: people helping people. Not become a business. 

Unskilled labour is not sustainable

Volontourists often lack the necessary skills for the work they are expected to carry out in the field. When building a house or a well, if the volunteer does not have the proper skills, their work might be of poor quality. 

At home, there are many regulations and policies. Not a trained builder? You cannot build. No teaching qualification? You cannot teach. Why should it be any different in the host country? The volunteer might be acquiring new skills on a personal level, but it might cost the community more time, money and energy than the volunteer has expended. 

Volontourism disrupts local economies

Could the work assigned to foreign volunteers be done by local workers? The answer is probably yes. But why pay for labour when volontourists are willing to work for free and pay to work?

Volunteers often perform jobs that locals could do. This disrupts the local job market by leaving skilled workers out of work. In addition, it fosters relationships of dependency in that local communities start relying on the performance of volunteers rather than building their own resilience. If volunteers do all the work without involving the local community, what happens when volunteers eventually leave?

There is no long-term commitment

Volunteer holidays usually only last between a few days to a couple of weeks. It can be difficult to grasp the complexity of the issue at hand in such a short time and actually make a difference. When considering how long to volunteer for, the ability of having an impact should be carefully assessed. 

The turnover can also be detrimental to aid recipients on an emotional level. When volunteering, it is natural to want to build relationships with the people one is working with. But in a few weeks time, the volunteer will probably leave. Is it fair to foster deep connections and then leave (especially when it comes to children)? Although against natural instincts, imposing personal boundaries is much more sustainable in the long run. The emotional wellbeing of those who stay behind when volunteers leave should be the priority. 

Volontourism puts the principle of "do no harm" at risk

Working with vulnerable people requires a strict set of standards to respect the core principle of humanitarianism: do no harm. Do no harm means avoiding exposing people to additional risks through one’s intervention. 

Do no harm generally involves background checks on volunteers, previous training sessions and strict codes of conduct to ensure that the safety and dignity of the host community are at the heart of the intervention. When volunteering is a business, this principle can often go out the window, leaving volunteers unsupervised and unaware of how their actions could harm the local communities they are hoping to serve

Volontourism often perpetuates a "white-saviour complex"

One of the main arguments against volontourism is that it primarily serves to portray volontourists as the “developed saviours” of “the poor of developing countries”. It reinforces the idea that host communities are not fellow citizens with agency and rights, but pure and passive victims in need of external help and rescue to develop

Rooted in colonialism, this white-saviour complex makes volunteers the heroes of the story, rather than affected communities. Illustrated by numerous blogs, Facebook posts and even “Humanitarians of Tinder”, it becomes clear that helping others or “selfie humanitarianism” is more about a project of self-realisation than about actual impact. 

Furthermore, by reducing the solutions to the issues at hand to the external intervention of foreign volunteers, it masks the responsibilities of political authorities and local and international systems which have created and maintained these situations of precarity. It depoliticizes the situations of affected communities and maintains the status quo by enabling the perpetuation of structural inequalities.

Choose and get involved responsibly

Volunteering is not doomed. Rather responsible volunteering is the way forward. Hopefully, uncovering the risks of volontourism can lead to volunteerism that primarily serves the needs of affected communities and not volunteers. So here are some questions to ask oneself when looking for volunteering placements.

  • Should I have to pay to do volunteer work?*
  • Is the organisation transparent about how funds are allocated?
  • Have I been asked for a background check, offered training or been informed of codes of conduct?
  • Is my available time enough to make a difference?
  • Is the project really needed by the community?
  • Could my job be performed by a local?
  • Does the volunteer position match my skills?
  • Is the project’s impact being measured and deemed successful?
  • How is my foreign intervention legitimate?

* Some organisations like Indigo Volunteers challenge the exploitative practices of for-profit volunteering agencies by carefully selecting impactful organisations and matching volunteers’ skills with them totally free of charge. Impact first

Picture by RODNAE Productions on Unsplash