Voluntourism: Ensuring you are doing some good

Katy Stewart

Website: Starry-Eyed Travels

Katy from Starry-Eyed Travels website on Mallory on Travel adventure photography


I’m originally from Salisbury in the UK and I’m a writer with an irrepressible sense of wanderlust. Later in the year, I’ll be heading off to South America where I plan to spend a few months volunteering (ethically!) before travelling around the continent.

Travel Mind

1.         How did you get involved in writing/blogging?

I have always loved writing and while on a year abroad during my degree I started a blog just for family and friends. Now that I have finished university, I am trying to pursue a career in writing and I’m developing my online skills slowly but surely!

2.         Share your guilty travel secret.

I always hunt out the big supermarket or expat-run cafe where I can get English Breakfast teabags or a decent cup of tea!

3.         Which would you rather be; rockstar blogger or bestselling author and why?

I really want to be a published author. I’m still getting to grips with blogging, but I like time and space to think, dream and write.

4.         What is the best tip you have ever been given?

Not to worry about things you can’t control – when you stop doing that it opens you up to new opportunities and makes you a lot happier!

5.         Where would you be if you could be anywhere right now?

There are so many places on my bucket list, but right now I can’t imagine anything better than my forthcoming trip to Peru and the feeling I will have seeing Machu Picchu after the four-day, high-altitude hike.

6.         If you could travel with any three people, celebrity, fictional or historical who would be your companions?

Charley Boorman, David Attenborough and Audrey Hepburn: Charley for his laid-back attitude and ability to get anywhere on a motorbike, David for his incredible wealth of knowledge and experience and Audrey for her compassion and intercultural understanding.

7.         What invention do you wish had been invented already?

Environmentally-friendly air travel.

Voluntourism: How to ensure you really are doing some good

More and more people are dissatisfied with simply being tourists and look for ways to get involved with the culture and people in the places they visit. Volunteering is a popular way to do this and many people think that by signing up for a volunteer programme, they must be doing some good for the local community.

There are, of course, plenty of projects around the world where international volunteers are genuinely needed to provide practical help or skills and expertise – these will be rewarding experiences for both the volunteer and the project they work with. However, for me there is something deeply disturbing about the rise in voluntourism companies which combine often just one or two weeks’ of volunteering with travel experiences. Often these programmes are incredibly expensive (on quick search for voluntourism on Google showed prices of well over £1,000 for a two-week placement, excluding flights, in numerous destinations). Furthermore, many do not ask for specific experiences or skills and so bright-eyed, eager do-gooders can quite easily go charging into situations they know nothing about. I don’t see how the explosion of these kinds of programmes can be good for the local communities. A glut of wealthy westerners forcing themselves upon deprived communities, hugging a few children, painting a wall and then leaving to go on safari does nothing to provide constructive training to empower people and get them on the path to an independent future.

Young person sitting alone on Mallory on Travel adventure photography, voluntourism


Commercialism in volunteering

I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I do think that many of these large companies, who are profiting hugely from situations of poverty, are often doing nothing to actually solve any of the issues in the long term. I find this especially worrying in terms of programmes which involve childcare of any kind, as all children need stability and security.

A stream of volunteers coming in and out every couple of weeks, most of whom do not speak their language and often have only limited experience in working with children, patently does not provide this. Children are human beings with the same human rights as anyone else on this planet. They are also vulnerable and need protecting and nurturing – they absolutely should not be used to assuage western guilt.

Working with children

This does not rule out projects working with children altogether; in some cases, international volunteers can be beneficial, it is just a case of doing some research. I believe that it is often better to organise placements independently, directly with a local organisation, which is an integral part of the local community. Volunteers to teach English or computer skills are very much in demand and you can see the future benefits of this – with a good level of English and ICT ability, job prospects will be greatly improved and offers this education to children who would not otherwise receive it.

Voluntourism Favela-Project-promotion on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Favela Project promotion

If working with children in any capacity other than teaching English, I would say that it is important to have at least a conversational level of the local language and to have extensive experience of working with children. Many local volunteer organisations demand this, in contrast with the large voluntourism companies. Often, these local organisations also ask for a minimum commitment, usually ranging between 3 and 6 months. This shows that they are providing a level of stability for the children involved in the programmes, which I find reassuring.

Above all, I think finding an ethical volunteering placement, which works for the long term benefit of the local community also provides a positive experience for the volunteer. If the particular company or organisation can offer specific details about your role, what your rights and responsibilities are and the support which will be offered to you – like any job – then they are clearly concerned about the welfare of the people they help and of their staff. This will enable you, as the volunteer, to do a far more effective job, and that is always satisfying. A very useful and simple guide to help you choose a project is The Ethical Volunteering Guide. It sets out seven key questions you should ask and which the company should be able to answer. If they can’t, you know that something’s not quite right.


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