Do you think that volunteer tourists do more harm than good?

Small projects like ours are increasingly dependant on tourists to bring in the much needed cash to enable us to continue our work. But are these voluntourists doing more harm than good? What value does voluntourism bring to development?

These are some of the questions raised in this blog by an ex-volutourist and now contributor to Africa on the Blog

Is she right?

Hi Ida,

Thanks for posing these questions. As the owner of a travel planning company with a focus on voluntourism, I frequently ponder these questions myself.

I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer, even when intentions of the voluntourists are good. Determining which causes to support, and what to "fix" is extremely subjective. I've made initial contact with some organizations to support after seeing the positive results of their work, and I'm also open to organizations approaching me first, and requesting support through a voluntourism program. (I'm certainly aware that some individuals or communities do not have an organized voice or way to contact anyone about their plight.)

There are cases in which communities are "content" living in conditions many would find deplorable and are happy to simply share their experiences with visitors, not wanting to be influenced by outside forces that would dilute the aspects of their culture they themselves find most appealing (and are not harmful by anyone's standards). Clearly when a community's health is compromised or basic needs are not being met, we should respond with help, so I'm not considering those scenarios here.

We'd all like to think that the best approach is to assist in such a way that will enable those in need to become (more) self-sufficient and not encourage dependency since dependent relationships often become rife with corruption and manipulation on both sides. Too often the people requiring assistance are not managing their own solutions, they are not administering their own aid because of a belief that they are incapable of doing so. We all know the "teach a man to fish" saying....and I think it certainly applies here.

I encourage voluntourists to see the non-monetary riches, the intangibles that already exist, having nothing to do with anyone's financial or on-the-ground support. There should never be an assumption that someone who doesn't have the latest and greatest in technology, or who isn't wearing the latest designer fashions, or living in a tony neighborhood is lacking in all facets of his or her life. There often exists in these communities peace, pride, confidence, humility, intellect, and understanding that far surpasses anything material wealth can bring. There's definitely a belief out there that the only ones on the receiving end with voluntourism programs are the poor or socio-economically challenged. However, I know from first-hand experience that there is as much for the voluntourist to receive as they are giving. My personal best voluntour experiences have resulted in continued relationships with new friends around the world who inspire me with their determination and will in the face of lack and tragedy. I think my clients would agree, and say that a few hours, days or weeks spent helping to build a home, read to a child, or participate in a rally for a cause have been some of the most rewarding experiences of their lives because of the unexpected changes within themselves they felt during and after voluntouring.

I have also seen instances where voluntourists' ideas about what's right and wrong, and their lack of understanding about long-term cultural impacts have angered communities and superiority/inferiority issues arise in the name of modernization. Generations become divided, and the chasm leads to an opportunity for that manipulation I spoke of earlier to breed.

What makes voluntourism work is respect, mutual appreciation and understanding. Voluntour programs should foster a two-way exchange so that everyone benefits from giving and receiving. There should be face-to-face interaction and a willingness to listen and understand the truest desires of all parties to improve the chances of doing more good than harm. Voluntourism can result in successful development, but a genuine desire for positive change in the eyes of the beneficiaries has to outweigh any ulterior motives, no matter how harmless they may seem to be.


I certainly agree with you Sybil, when these visits are organized and structured properly they can be beneficial to both guests and vistors. I currently out in Uganda and it has been interesting to note that whilst in one community, the locals were clearly in charge and spelling out the direction they would like the development of the village, in another the community felt the visitors had to provide, so much so that they wanted to be paid to come to a village meeting. I am not sure where such attitudes come from and perhaps that is a topic for another blog post here.

The greatest advantage to voluntourists is the contribution to local economies, as they consume local services and products and this income goes directly into the pockets of those locals. This is not necessarily the case in other forms of toursim, where for instance visitors have to pay entry fess to a national park

Ida - thank you for posting this very thought-provoking discussion. In many respects, the issues raised are not confined to “voluntourism”; they can equally apply to any volunteering initiative, and indeed to any aid programme. Good intentions, combined with a lack of humility and willingness to listen and learn from those we seek to help, can be a toxic mix. But as with everything, there are lessons that can be learned to enhance the impact and mitigate the risks.

For volunteering, which I believe has the potential to be a powerful force for good, “respect, mutual appreciation and understanding” - highlighted by Sybil - is critical. I would also add that targeting volunteers with the skills identified by the host country or community can go a long way to enhancing impact. I always advise people that the best way they can do good is to focus on what they do best - whether that is marketing, finance, law or running a businesses in a specific sector.

With all that said, we should not discount the benefit that volunteering brings by transforming the perspectives and priorities of those who volunteer. I was a volunteer teacher in Zimbabwe in the late '80s and it fundamentally shifted by focus, and led me ultimately to do what I do today. I am now on the board of the charity that sent me to Zimbabwe, and there are countless transformative stories of the volunteers we send overseas - not only in terms of a shift in their career focus (many become doctors, teachers and development workers), but also in their sensitization to the issues and solutions to world poverty - built on first hand experience and friendships with individuals who we all too often group together under the collective label of “poor people”. In short, they constitute an ever-growing body of people who can help drive the deeper changes - of the sort identified by Ossob in her blog - that are needed to fight world poverty.

Volunteers are indeed a great resource in terms of skills sharing. Having installed piped water in Ruhanga SW Uganda 2 of the taps "run out of water". Fortunately one of the volunteers we had staying with us was a water engineer and was able to work out that the stream from which we were drawing the water had changed course. He recommended the necessary work to correct this and led on it.

This would not have been possible without him.

But as you quite right say, to benefit from such skills, the skills gap on the ground needs to be identified so that would be volunteers are matched with the correct schemes. I have seen unhappy volunteers too, because they felt their skills set were not put to appropriate use

HI Ida. I am so happy for you, everyday you come up with a new innovation to help Africa. A short one about Volunteer Tourism,

1. Volunteer tourism is very cheap to clients and yet it benefits the communities.

2. It brings a strong bondage between the client and the communities visited and thus brings up what we call return tourism or a client coming back to check if his/her effort helped the community change.

3. It brings money direct to the communities not to the corrupt Government officials.

There fore for Africa to benefit from tourism, volunteer tourism is the way to go. In areas my company operates, a lot of children have gotten new skills i.e in football, music and they have also got career encouragement from my clients.


Hi Julius

I would really like to hear more about how the communities in Kisoro SW Uganda benefit from tourism and how volunteer projects are structured. Are volunteers interested in certain types of projects or are they open to new ideas for instance. How do you match volunteers skills to community needs for instance and what sort of challenges have you faced?

Coffee Tours Limited is the best Eco-tourism agency in Uganda. We deal in Eco-tourism, volunteer tourism and coffee safaris. Our tourism trend has helped communities in 4 ways;

1. Clients stay in community homes, eat local food and pay direct to the locals; this helps spread tourism money to the communities.

2. We use only native guides.

3. Our clients buy crafts from women groups that operate from the selected homes.

4. Our clients donate to hospitals, needy children through our “carry extra bag program” follow this link for details.

Our volunteer projects are tailored made to the needs of the community visa vie tourist interests.

  • In the community primary school, visitors volunteer in areas of their skills or education line for example, Doctors carry out medical checks and recommend treatment.
  • Women groups in Chihe village, visitors share with the women skills they have in craft making.
  • Bamboo project, here the visitors advice members on new items and better skills too..
  • Visitors also volunteer in hospitals as councilors, provide medical services and also donate drugs they come with under our extra bag program.

The biggest challenge we have during our volunteer activities is high expectations from the locals. They expect to be given free money to start up projects to help them eradicate poverty. They never value skills as they value money.

Hi Ida,

The question is very relevant in todays world, but there is a danger of simplifying the subject I believe..

First of all long term skilled 'volunteering' is generally very good, and VSO is probably the most well-known proponent of that in the UK at least.

But there is a big difference between that and short term unskilled volunteering, which is often provided by organisations that are:

1) Charities or NGOs looking for revenue streams but without the expertise to manage visitors

2) Companies that have the knowledge to manage visitors, but lack a developmental perspective.

What would be great is if organisations could run voluntourism with an equitable relationship between the needs of the host community and the needs and expectations of the visitor. Too often, voluntourism is presented as a 'product' by companies that need to make a profit. This profit priority clearly outweighs any social impetus.

However a lot of companies running voluntourism 'products' actually have no background or training or knowledge of development (at least that is what I see!). So perhaps some advice is needed on how the money is shared out, essentially turning this great opportunity into a proper long term sustainable revenue stream for recipients of all these volunteers. The best advice website out there, in my opinion, is Fair Trade Volunteering, which is really just a set of criteria for organisations to follow when it comes to following the money.

I do think that if there is a long term developmental strategy behind short term voluntourism, and the tail does not wag the dog when it comes to motivations, then volunteers or visitors helping out with genuine social causes, is a very good thing. At the very least, it enables young people (and old) to see things for themselves and redefine their morals about 'aid' and 'development' and issues like 'globalisation'. For massive groups of people like Studenthubs, this experience is vital I think.

Some great articles on this subject:

Benefits of Volunteering trips

Ethics of a Medical Elective

All the best,


This is a great discussion. I did short-term volunteer work in six places, which became the backbone of my memoir, The Voluntourist—A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem, which came out last spring. Everywhere I worked, I asked many of the same questions that critics ask: Is what I’m doing helpful? Do the people I’m working with actually benefit?

I've read a lot of criticism of voluntourism recently, and I think that’s healthy and necessary. Unfortunately, the critics seem to assume that all voluntourism programs are created equally, when some organizations are quite good and some are not. I've used this example before, but to condemn voluntourism as a whole because of some poorly run programs would be like condemning democracy because of a few crooked politicians. Another assumption is that all volunteers are guilt-ridden 18-year-olds driven by middle-class angst to work in third-world orphanages as a way of boosting their self-esteem. In my experience, the volunteers I met had a genuine desire to help others. I’m sure people DO volunteer for the wrong reasons; I’m just saying that on six trips I never saw it. And the criticism rarely addresses other types of volunteer trips, such as scientific or nature projects.

I came to believe that there is an intangible quality to volunteering that’s almost more important than the work. When I volunteered at a special needs school in China, we were a break in the routine for the staff. They enjoyed trying to improve their English and joking with us and asking questions about America. We were a cultural novelty. And the work can indeed be helpful. I spent two weeks on a climate change project in Ecuador, and the scientists could run more projects when they had volunteer labor. But I always thought the biggest benefits were the cultural interactions that occurred. You learn about other people and they learn about you—and that changes the way we see each other. And that benefits everyone.

Thanks for your contribution Gavin

On the issue of equity- I am not sure how we achieve this but it is central to the question of volunteer tourists. I don't have 'concrete' evidence per se but from my observation at least in Uganda, some amongst the visitors for instance have no expectations of learning from their host communities but instead view their role as one of a "saviour" . On the other hand some of the host communities have expectations of financial rewards by having these visitors amongst them. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, these expectations ought to be managed in away that doesn't blur the lines. With this scenario I would recommend that this is packaged as holiday and not a volunteering trip.

This type of tourism is equally beneficial to the economic development of communities.

The monies charged by some companies are indeed staggering and as you quite rightly say transparence as to where this money goes would be welcomed. I think if such companies were to demonstrate that a big chunk of the money goes to the communities in question, that would address some of the controversy surrounding this topic. But that said the controversy is not simply about the money but also touches issues of mutual respect.

Now a tour arranged around the study of the impact of globalisation around the world is something I would sign up to. I have spent 10 days in Uganda and the impact of globalisation especially in rural areas is worrying

Thanks for your contribution Ken

It is indeed right that the positive side of volunteer tourists is never publicised to the extent that the negative aspects are. I have to say that some of the negative comments are not unfounded either as we have had volunteers turn up at community project in SW Uganda expecting to look after orphans and on realising that they were no orphans they left the project. But this is partly the result of perceptions put out by popular media amongst other things. The cultural exchange is crucial as it breeds tolerance.