Voluntourism – is it the evil of our time?

It is a natural response to have compassion when we see suffering; it’s part of our human nature. Thanks to globalisation and access to the internet, the world is a much smaller place. To  go a day without seeing those overseas who desperately need our support, is almost impossible.

So in response, you would love to help. To get amongst it. Possibly even see the world while you’re there.

Voluntourism is the perfect solution.

Or is it?

Voluntourism simply means to volunteer and to be a tourist at the same time. But unfortunately, voluntourism has had lots of bad press lately. So why is it getting such a bad rap? Is voluntourism really the evil of our time?

Most voluntourism opportunities include visiting developing countries and in particular orphanages. It is here where the concerns lie. The truth about orphanages is that the majority of children living in orphanages have at least one living parent. Some research estimates that 90% of these children have families to go home to. So why are these children here? The most common reason – poverty.

Most of these countries have very poor welfare systems and therefore if a single parent is sick or poor they will not have the resources to provide adequate care or education for their children. These children are then ferried to an orphanage to be cared for and sent to school. Unfortunately for all their good intentions the institutionalisation of a child can be more harmful then their lack of education at home. And regrettably these children are sometimes leveraged for income (and ‘donations’) or worse are used for child slavery and sexual exploitation.

The second issue is that the recipient communities come to rely on the influx of skills and finances of the visitors instead of developing their own. This can be fed through a dysfunctional relationship between donors and beneficiaries. Often the donors are seen as the hero, or the superior party, which places the real needs of the community below their own. This imbalance between the two parties, albeit unintentional, can be the source of when helping actually hurts.** 

So, what does responsible voluntourism look like?

  1. Travel with an organisation, not on your own – organisations should have a history of working with the community abroad in a way that builds the community not takes from it. They must also have a child protection policy in place that ensure only vetted volunteers have access to children.
  2. Do your research – seek out organisations that have volunteer best practices in place and consistently measure the impact they are having.
  3. Understand that change takes time (you won’t save the world in one trip). You are part of a bigger picture so prepare yourself to serve in any way you are needed.

Volunteering can be an exciting adventure and a massive help to those in need when undertaken with wisdom and preparedness.

How does Exousia Abroad handle the dangers and risks of voluntourism?

  1. Due to the nature of our programs, our volunteers have minimal interactions with children. While there’s nothing wrong with organisations that do, it removes many child safety issues for us at Exousia. Having said that, we also have a child protection policy in place.*
  2. Relationships are key to our organisation. An integral part of our programs is user feedback. It helps us to understand the problems that they’re facing and ensures that we’re continually adapting to the needs of the communities in which we work.
  3. We’re in it for the long game. We’ve been working in Yangon for 8 years now and we understand that change takes time and that our presence is only a single piece of the larger puzzle.
  4. We believe education is our most powerful tool. At the heart of our organisation is a desire to provide tools and knowledge so that people can have the power to change their situation.

Although we have these steps in place, we will be the first to admit that no organisation is perfect and it’s our desire to stay on top of these risks. Responsible volunteering can be a huge benefit to disadvantaged communities when executed with wisdom and care.


///We hope that when planning a trip overseas to help those in need, you’ll give us a call. We have opportunities for qualified practitioners (specifically Nutritionist and Naturopaths) to lend their skills in a ‘train the trainer’ environment. For more info on our programs you can click here. ///

*For a copy of our child protection policy please don’t hesitate to contact us.

**For more information on When Helping Hurts you can read the book by the same title found here.

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