Hands around a globe with The Voluntourism debate overlay

Photography By alx/AdobeStock

The pros and cons of volunteer vacations

Planning to travel and change the worldCheck if your trip will do more harm than good

Ah, the joys of travel. Seeing the world, experiencing different cultures…building a school? For some, getting their hands dirty is the goal behind a trip abroad.

In fact, there’s a growing trend among travellers—from gap-year students hoping to find themselves to families seeking a learning experience for their kids—to ditch well-trod tourist paths and luxury loafing at resorts in favour of a more meaningful experience. It’s estimated that more than 1.6 million such volunteer tourists spend upwards of two billion dollars ($USD) globally each year.

Dubbed voluntourism, it’s the fastest-growing sector in the $173-billion youth tourism industry and facilitates trips for people who want to travel with purpose, whether it’s building schools, visiting children in orphanages or working with medical professionals.

There’s much debate over whether voluntourism, a term usually flung out as a pejorative, actually helps those on the receiving end. On the one hand, detractors like Nigerian-American author Teju Cole, who famously tweeted a thread about the White Savior Industrial Complex that was published in The Atlantic, say that unskilled, well-meaning tourists swooping into a place of need for a few weeks does very little to actually help. On the other hand, proponents argue that the experiences of well-intentioned travellers can translate into long-term advocacy and volunteering in their own communities.

Can going to Africa or Asia or South America “to help” have a positive impact for everyone involved? We asked two women who contemplated this question to share their experiences.

On the “no” side

Toronto student Emma Perry was planning to take a gap-year volunteer trip when research on the potential negative impacts led her to abandon her plans.

Perry admits she didn’t know much about voluntourism, but she was attracted to the idea of helping others while exploring the world. “My expectations about volunteering abroad were similar to anyone else who knew very little about voluntourism; travelling to a destination, building a school or a well, and then returning to Canada a couple of weeks later.”

As she got further into her research on childcare and environmental conservation trips, however, she became more skeptical. “The more I researched, the harder it was to find an organization I felt good about.”

And there’s a lot of negative chatter out there. One scathing takedown of volunteer tourism can be found on Instagram in the form of @barbiesavior. The satirical account uses Barbie dolls to illustrate how good-intentioned travelers can end up objectifying those they’re trying to help.

Other fields of voluntourism can be downright dangerous. As Noelle Sullivan, assistant professor of Instruction in Global Health Studies and Anthropology at Northwestern University Medical, outlines in Scientific American, medical volunteers have been known to perform procedures, such as births, without the necessary qualifications, putting patients’ lives at risk. And author JK Rowling issued a scathing rejection of volunteering in orphanages via Twitter, which, she says, incentivizes orphanages that are run as businesses to keep children in care, many of whom are not orphans at all.

Perry finally decided against a volunteering trip after watching a TEDx talk from Daniela Papi, founder of youth leadership organization PEPY, that exposed how well meaning volunteers’ efforts are often totally unhelpful (like how one project yielded a brand new school that sat empty because what the community really needed was teachers). “I decided that volunteer tourism was not the right move for me,” she says. “I didn’t want to do something that I didn’t 100 percent support.” She ended up exploring southwestern Europe on her own instead.

On the “yes” side

Karen Richardson has a totally different view. In her late 20s, she quit a job she hated in Toronto to volunteer abroad—and says it was one of the best experiences of her life, and one that’s contributed to a lasting impact on the community she visited.

In 2005 she travelled to Nepal to work with humanitarian Indira Ranamagar and Prisoners Assistance Nepal, her organization that assists women prisoners and their children, many of whom live in jail together. Rather than spending a few weeks cuddling babies (a criticism of orphanage travel that UNICEF outlined in its opinion on volunteer work in orphanages), Richardson spent three months writing fundraising material, speeches and briefing notes, as well as spending time with the children.

Ranamagar’s humanitarian organization has been helping families and children in Nepal for 27 years and in 2014 was honoured with the World’s Children’s Prize, which has also recognized Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai. Ranamagar runs three children’s homes, two schools, and programs allowing children to go to school during the day and stay with their mothers in prison at night. She also educates mothers in prison and gives them vocational training. Her efforts led the BBC to name her one of the world’s 100 most influential women in 2017, calling her “the woman who’s rescued 1,600 children.”

Richardson says she saw that because of Ranamagar’s work “these kids are not just forgotten, living in a jail cell, and their parents actually have a chance at rehabilitation and education once they are released from prison.” She discovered the lasting impact of her involvement when years later in 2010, she returned to Nepal and the children remembered “Karen Auntie.”

This experience aligns with core principles for positive volunteer travel that academic Eric Hartman outlines in the research paper Fair Trade Learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Rather than focus on the needs of the traveller, he and his colleagues write that volunteer tourism programs should be based on community involvement, financial transparency, matching of skills and long-term sustainability.

Or as Judith Lasker, author of Hoping to Help writes in Salon, “Most people see [their] efforts as helpful and praiseworthy. They can be, but only if they are designed to focus on what host communities need and then match their own capacity to meet those needs.”

While the decision to bundle travel with good intentions is an individual one, it seems that the actions of the organization and the motives of the individual are key. Learning from others and helping in ways that are needed may be noble motivators. If the impulses  for such travel are simply building a CV or experiencing something “authentic,” however, it might be best to stick to posting well-framed selfies from the beach.