Volunteer tourism: Who really benefits?

Image credit: Alex Proimos.

Volunteering in a developing country has become an increasingly common option for many travellers who crave more from a holiday than just sun, sea and sand. With a plethora of volunteer tourism options available, it’s also very easy to organise, with many programmes including language and sightseeing elements as well as accommodation and placements. Yet many responsible travellers become so caught up in making a difference, they forget to ask the vital question: who really benefits?

Despite all the potential inconveniences which can go with volunteer tourism (i.e. lack of comforts, sanitation, infrastructure etc), research shows that volunteering is generally a good experience for travellers. Along with developing their skills  and experiencing a different culture, volunteers often find volunteering to be a cathartic experience. However, volunteer tourism doesn’t always benefit host communities in the same way.

For a project to be beneficial to the local community, it should:

  • have long-term, sustainable outcomes
  • be involved with the long-term development of the community and preferably (depending on the country) have links with social sector programmes.
  • ensure volunteers’ efforts supplement the skills of the local community without replacing them. In short, if you’re helping to build a school or dig a ditch, you’re probably doing something a local could be paid to do.
  • provide opportunities for the host community to engage with you – it’s not just about the volunteer experiencing a new culture, it’s also about locals learning about yours.

Volunteering can have huge benefits to both travellers and local communities or it can be unhelpful or even detrimental. The difference comes down to the project and the programme you pick and, unfortunately, many of the easiest, most convenient options aren’t the best ones.


Working in orphanages / teaching children English

Unfortunately, working with children (as cute as they are) opens the door to all sorts of issues. First is the length of stay. It’s not fair to ask children to bond with new teachers or carers who only stay a few weeks. Imagine a stream of tourists coming through a school or orphanage, giving children trinkets and sweets for smiles and hugs, and then abruptly vanish from their lives. For orphans, this can perpetuate the idea that people always leave them, just like their parents did.

Even teaching English can be of limited benefit on a short-term basis, the lack of curriculum and consistency (not to mention accents) can make it difficult for the children to make sustained progress, especially if their teachers aren’t actually trained to teach English as a second language.

Anyone working with children should also have background checks to reduce issues around abuse or neglect. Think about the process you would have to go through to work with children in your own country. If similar measures aren’t in place, that should be a warning sign about the reputability of the organisation.

One of the other drawbacks of volunteering at orphanages is that it can direct funding and attention away from the goal of supporting families and building a sustainable social system. It can, to be blunt, create a market for orphans and orphanages, where giving a child away becomes a more viable option than helping families to take care of them. Instead, the focus should be on keeping families and communities together and building a system which supports that.


How about natural disaster relief? They must always need help, right?

Unless you are trained in disaster relief or have the relevant skills, it’s almost always better to donate money rather than time. If you really want to help, consider the state of infrastructure and supplies which can take months or years to be rebuilt. Untrained volunteers are often an extra drain on an already-stretched emergency response. In addition, small volunteer organisations often have no contact with the housing, health or education ministries, which means there is no long-term sustainability in the work you’re doing.

While the local tourism industry may be suffering, ask yourself the following questions before you jump on that plane:

  • Is the infrastructure in a state to support tourism?
  • Are the communities ready for tourism?
  • Is this project part of the larger rebuild plan?
  • Will I potentially be taking trained staff attention away from more important issues?
  • Can locals do this work themselves?
  • Will my homestay family be fairly paid?
  • Why do I really want to go?
  • What about holidaying somewhere cheaper and donating the difference to a reputable charity?


So are you saying I shouldn’t volunteer at all then?

Not at all! Volunteering has the potential to make a huge contribution to sustainable development. Just pick organisations and projects that ensure that both you and the host community benefit from your work and ask yourself some questions before you sign up:

  • Are you qualified to do this sort of work in your home country?
  • Is it likely that there is a local person who could do this, or does it involve specialist skills?
  • Have you researched your organisation? Does it have a commitment to long-term sustainable development? (note: this disqualifies most tourism providers)
  • Are you committing to the project for at least three months (especially for childcare)?
  • Is there a training component (particularly if the situation involves disaster relief)?
  • Would a financial contribution to a reputable organisation make more of a difference?
  • Are you doing it because you think it would be a good experience? Or do you want to volunteer because you believe your contribution will truly benefit the host community?


What else can I do to make a difference?

Consider volunteering in your own neighbourhood. Learn the sector, get trained in something specific – then you’ll know how you can help out when you travel.

Try skilled volunteering. We all have a day job, right? If you want your skills to benefit a developing country, try looking at the UN’s online volunteering website

Donate to a reputable organisation. You could even consider donating a portion of the money you would have spent on your trip and go somewhere cheaper instead.

Visit the area anyway – just make sure you choose operators that benefit the local community. And, if it’s a post-disaster areas, wait until the relief efforts are completed. Remember, just because the local tourism industry tells you it’s fine to visit post-disaster, doesn’t mean you should.

Make conscious decisions when you travel (and in your daily life too, of course). Try to choose companies and activities that minimise harmful impacts and benefit local communities as much as possible.

In short, be sure to do your research before packing your bags.

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