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Voluntourism: Is There a Better Way?

The trend for young people globally, wanting to see the world while giving back via some form of voluntary service, is ever increasing in popularity. It can be a vehicle for personal growth, development, and an opportunity for cultural exchange and to gain new perspectives on the world.

In recent years, the term voluntourism has become widely used to categorise this area of the travel industry – though it often comes with negative connotations. It may seem surprising from the surface that supporting charities and non-profits while overseas could succumb to criticism; but delve a little deeper, and all might not be as it seems.

The problems linked with voluntourism generally arise because of two reasons:

  • Miscommunication
  • Lack of transparency


Much of the bad that is inherent with voluntourism can be put down to how the initiative is perceived by both the provider, and recipient of the service. It’s argued many young people who travel to be part of such programmes believe they are there to be the “educators” or “saviours” of a host community. That their role is to teach children and build infrastructure for example, in lieu of anyone else being able to do these jobs – despite the fact they aren’t qualified to do either.

Without direction and well-defined expectations, the initiatives disrupt learning and yield poorly constructed facilities. Leaving the well-intentioned young people, and the host community, questioning the meaningfulness of the visit.

Similarly, there have been many cases where families overseas have been duped into sending their children to live at orphanages in return for improved health care and education. In reality, they are starved, exploited, and kept away from their loved ones. Volunteers are then recruited on the basis that they are helping these orphaned children, not knowing that 80% of children in such institutions have parents at home. Travellers are there for what is essentially a tourist attraction that exists only for their benefit, and profits by keeping families apart.

Lack of Transparency

Organisations that provide volunteer opportunities are not always mindful of how visitors might be negatively impacting the communities they visit. From putting a strain on resources and taking work from local people; to focusing on short term solutions rather than well-defined long-term goals. If there is not a transparent supply chain and a clear ending, volunteer projects can create dependency, disrupt economies, and prevent investment in long-term solutions.

Frequently, questions are raised about donations – their value and where they end up. While volunteers would hope their donations would be used effectively and fairly, often they are spent on improving the volunteer experience rather than making direct change.

When considering the supply chains of volunteer programmes, if at any point the answer to a question is “I don’t know,” an organisation cannot say with any certainty, that the presence of volunteers is not causing more harm than good.

A Better Approach

At Outlook we are constantly questioning, reviewing, and developing what we do, working hard to ensure our programmes benefit our participants, the communities they're visiting, and the planet. We are currently evaluating all the opportunities we provide for students and assessing their viability going forward; making key decisions to ensure that what is meaningful for one, is meaningful for all.

We know there is no quick fix for this process, but we’re moving in the right direction by first rebalancing some of the terminology often associated with school expeditions and youth volunteer programmes:

Voluntourism > Transformational Tourism

As discussed, voluntourism has become somewhat of a dirty word over recent years. Our expeditions are about more than taking selfies and passive engagement, they are opportunities to learn, grow, and take responsibility.

Transformational tourism is about long-term positive impacts for individuals, communities, and the places we visit. It empowers and educates young people to become global citizens with a greater sense of social responsibility, gained through rich, meaningful experiences.

It’s about fostering skills and tools that young people will value in their lives long after their expedition – from teamwork and problem solving, to humility and empathy.

But the key to transformational tourism is that it’s collaborative. If it’s not, then it’s simply voluntourism by another name, with communities being used as props to enrich the lives of the visiting travellers. Therefore, the initiatives we are supporting must have clear, defined end goals so success can be measured. They must support genuine change, and they must contribute to the bigger picture to help the world achieve its global goals.

Volunteer > Service-Learning

The concept of volunteering suggests a goodwill gesture of one person helping another. So, in the context of voluntourism, it suggests the visiting traveller is helping the people they visit as an act of kindness. When tourism is transformational however, it’s about mutual benefit. The visitor benefits by gaining the aforementioned skills, knowledge, cultural exchange etc. while the host receives support to meet targets that will benefit their life in the long-term - as well as the social benefits of engaging with visiting teams.

Looking at it this way shifts the controversial power-dynamic of visitor and host, and puts the role of educator and guide, firmly in the hands of the hosts. Teams will support them in any way that is deemed appropriate and necessary to meet the hosts’ goals, but they are not there to carry out the work and lead the way – or take jobs from skilled locals. They are therefore learning through providing the service and gaining a far more authentic experience in the process.

Service-learning is sustainable providing the benefits are available to all, and last far beyond the confines of an expedition. The experience and knowledge gained through service-learning should provide a new lens for young people in how they see the world, so they can lead the way as global citizens and live in a responsible, mindful manner.

By all means, visit people who need help, she says. “But do it beside me and hear who I am. Get to know me and not all those stereotypes about me. And then go home and see if there’s something you’re doing that somehow perpetuates my situation.”
Professor Nancy McGehee - Virginia Tech University
Written by
Francesca Gallone