The Ethical Issues Of Voluntourism – Does It Do More Harm Than Good?

An image of three women passing cardboard boxes of a truck
Isabel Murphy

Voluntourism is a term which has been used since the 1990s, when many travellers started searching for ‘authentic experiences’ as opposed to typical holidays. It is a mixture of volunteering and tourism, where individuals supposedly support those more disadvantaged whilst simultaneously having the opportunity to travel somewhere which can be new and exciting. Voluntourism has recently received a lot of criticism in the media as people began to explore the ethical issues behind travelling abroad to do good.

Benefits of volunteering abroad can combine volunteers’ personal gain or growth with the opportunity to help those in need. The most obvious benefit of voluntourism is that organisations and charities in need are receiving help, whether it’s from local or international volunteers – although this is not always the case.

Many people gain experiences and knowledge not available in their home countries

In addition, there are multiple benefits for the individuals who do volunteer abroad. Volunteers have the opportunity to travel somewhere new and fully immerse themselves in the culture whilst simultaneously believing they are benefitting those in need. There is also the chance to learn new skills or languages and meet a variety of international people. On top of this, volunteering abroad can broaden your horizons as many people gain experiences and knowledge not available in their home countries, allowing for new perspectives.

Furthermore, voluntourism (or volunteering in general) looks good on a CV, creates talking points for job interviews and improves communication skills. Travelling abroad to volunteer can also benefit local economies as volunteers have the opportunity to eat in restaurants, buy goods and support those trying to make a living. In this instance, volunteers typically have more authentic experiences than they would on a typical holiday.

An image of a man with his back to the camera and a shirt saying volunteer

Volunteering abroad can be made to sound so exciting and beneficial for the actual volunteers, so it is sometimes difficult to focus on the negative impacts voluntourism can have for local people and institutions.

To begin, volunteering should not necessarily be considered ‘trendy’. Volunteers should take part in programmes which they feel really benefit others as opposed to just taking part for personal gain or the opportunity to travel. While charities often appreciate the help they receive from international travellers, it would be more ethical if all intentions were genuine.

In addition, travelling a long distance to volunteer can also be seen as a waste of resources. It can be argued that money spent buying equipment or in transport costs would be more beneficial if donated directly to a charity or organisation where they can pay to utilise local volunteers. This is especially poignant as travellers coming to volunteer abroad can also impact the economy negatively. Local labourers may be out of work due to charities employing unskilled workers as opposed to tradesmen they would have to pay for. As a consequence, many tasks completed by volunteers are not done so to a high enough standard, meaning they may have to be repeated.

Furthermore, there are many ethical issues surrounding organisations claiming to benefit those in need. Governments of poorer countries are often content with the idea of foreigners travelling to care for local children or build schools and libraries because it doesn’t require them to invest time and resources doing so. Consequently, they are not always overseeing all institutions, meaning vulnerable children and their families often suffer neglect, cruelty or abuse. Residents in orphanages or similar institutions are not always registered, and many institutions will therefore be understaffed.

So is it actually ethical?

Many of the volunteers who travel abroad do so with good intentions and the desire to help

This is a question which is frequently asked in the media but that nobody has an actual answer for. It is safe to say that many of the volunteers who travel abroad do so with good intentions and the desire to help those in need, although there are often negative consequences they are not aware of.

That being said, there are many arguments as to why voluntourism should not be allowed to take place. Instead, individuals or people wanting to make a difference have the opportunity to raise funds donated directly to charities and organisations in poorer countries to help reform institutions such as orphanages and pay for medical treatments or new infrastructure.

There are many ethical issues surrounding voluntourism, which raises the question as to if it is actually worth it. Those wanting to travel can often do so without the need to volunteer and can always volunteer somewhere local and benefit organisations in their home countries – meaning voluntourism is not the only option if you want to make a difference.

Isabel Murphy

Featured image courtesy of Joel Muniz via Unsplash. In-article image courtesy of ray sangga kusuma via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to the image.

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