The threat of Voluntourism is all too real, and Westerners are sustaining it

Voluntourism is a word that I have only acquired in my vocabulary in the past year or so. I used to think that there was tourism, where you went away on holiday, travelled around and just generally had a good time. And volunteering was something completely separate for me, hearing the word volunteering I would envisage people working hard, helping others, acting selflessly. The words just didn’t connect in my mind. I now know how naive I was, and how glad I am that I have understood that it is possible for both to occur at the same time, and that when this does happen it can have an extremely harming and detrimental effect on the people and places involved.

For as long as I can remember, I have always been desperate to be old enough to travel abroad on a volunteering scheme. Be it in Africa, India or Asia, it didn’t matter to me. Coming from a very privileged background, I just wanted to get out and away from London. I wanted the opportunity to do something good, give something back, and I thought that this was the ideal way to do it.

I’m not the only one either in recent years it has become extremely fashionable and desirable to travel across the world in order to teach English at a school, look after children at an orphanage or help build a town hall. This is something that is favoured by young, wealthy, Westerners, and is growing at a shockingly fast pace. Too fast. In order for companies and places to deal with the mounting number of young, well-meaning but clueless, Westerner’s, the number of orphanages has nearly doubled in developing countries, especially Cambodia. This is not due to an increased number of orphans, but an increase in the demand for children to fill orphanages in order to satisfy the Westerner’s who want to come and do their ‘bit’. One of the ways in which these orphanages are being filled up is through the abduction of children. These children come from loving families, yet are taken away in order to create a ‘lasting bond’ with a different person every month.

What people don’t realise, but what needs to be made known is that voluntourism is not a good thing to do, it’s not selfless, you won’t find yourself and most importantly you are doing the exact opposite of what you think you are.

The story that struck me most was that of Philippa Biddle, who spent a couple of weeks in Tanzania doing building work. To her utter dismay and horror, she discovered that each night the local men would dismantle the work Philippa and her fellow volunteers had done and redo the work while the volunteers slept. The reason this had to be done was because the volunteers clearly had no experience of bricklaying, yet the area needed the large sum of money that the volunteers come with, so accepted the volunteers welcomingly.

It made me realise how absurd it was that we seem to think that because we are travelling to less well developed countries we will be superior to them in every sense, and help them in a way they cannot themselves. This is of course nonsense, if you aren’t qualified to be a builder or teacher in your home country, what on earth makes you think that in just two weeks you can miraculously build and teach elsewhere?

We need to raise awareness of this, and fast. It is a trend that is growing too rapidly, it is spiralling out of control. People need to be informed when looking for volunteer organisations, it is possible to do it properly, there are several organisations who are very careful to only accept those who have relevant qualifications. People & Planet are one ethical volunteer company, where you must go through an application process, as you would with any job, and you are put with a program that fits your skills. So by all means, if you have the skills, please, you are encouraged to give your time and help. But if you are a someone who just wants to see the world and make a difference, make sure you’re not doing the one at the expense of the other or find another way. Donate money from home, volunteer at home with local ethical organisations.

I know this will be difficult for some people, I know for me it certainly was. For a while I felt almost strangely resentful that I never got to experience what for so long I thought would be this incredible, life changing experience. But it needs to be accepted, there are so many ways to help from home, and if you want to see the world by all means go traveling!

For more information have a look at ‘How to Volunteer Abroad Ethically’ (

 Emily Arcedeckne-Butler

Image courtesy of WhyDev

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