May2420094:48 pm

Intl. development volunteering: dispelling the rosy view, ctd.

Thanks to everyone who chimed in on our discussion, started last Sunday, on “voluntourism” and international volunteering. The post generated some passionate and lengthy feedback, so I want to revisit the topic, both to round-up what’s been said as well as to allow myself a few more thoughts.

First, a few organizations that entered the discussion and that international job seekers might be interested in checking out:

  • VSO: “the world’s leading independent international development organisation that works through volunteers to fight poverty in developing countries;” based in London
  • Cross-Cultural Solutions: “specializes in short-term volunteer abroad programs in 12 countries;” based in New Rochelle, NY
  • GlobeAware: develops short-term volunteer programs in international environments that encourage people to immerse themselves in a unique way of giving back;” based in Dallas, TX

Now, to the meat. My goal in starting a dialogue with Alanna RE: voluntourism was, quite simply, to find out more about it. I wanted to learn why an experienced development practitioner (Alanna) viewed voluntourism so negatively. And based on her view of the concept, I also wanted to revisit my initial opinion (I wrote many months back: “Voluntourism strikes me as not only a way to give back but also a means to gain short-term experience working abroad”) and determine if I was perhaps off the mark.

The first aspect of my post that some readers took issue with was nomenclature: “voluntourism” vs. “volunteering.” A few mentioned that voluntourism is in fact not volunteering at all—commenter Steve Jackson suggested they shouldn’t even be “mentioned in the same breath.” I’m respectful of Steve’s opinion, as well as his position as a skilled VSO volunteer, though I’m doubtful of this assertion. I wasn’t purposefully trying to conflate the two terms, or to use them interchangeably. But I did view, and still do, voluntourism as a form of volunteering, which for better or for worse I think many people would consider it to be (the original SF Chronicle article that spawned my first post on voluntourism defines voluntourism as a way in which one might volunteer, not as a wholly separate concept).

Those who stridently oppose voluntourism as wholly unbeneficial and with none of the redeeming qualities we typically associate with volunteer work are welcome to do so, though I’m unwilling to join them in this assessment, largely because I’m reluctant to judge the intentions and benefits of a large group of people and programs that are not all the same. I guess I’d just rather discuss than assume.

All of which leads to the second issue that arose as a result of my post: what does it mean to pay for a volunteer experience abroad?  Or, what do we really mean when we say “voluntourism”?

I get the feeling that some who oppose the notion of voluntourism have a very specific image of who the typical voluntourist is: a rich voyeur who wishes to gawk at the wretched poor and then brag to his friends about his unending altruism, but has no real interest in the people or the cause he is allegedly serving. In essence, a “poverty tourist.”

While this type of person most likely exists, is this the only kind of voluntourist? Or, if a voluntourist is indeed someone who only wishes to gawk and brag, not to help, is every person then who pays for a volunteer experience abroad a voluntourist? I don’t think so, and point to commenter Darin Lim Yankowitz’s experience as an example. Darin details his own “voluntourist” experience, and it hardly seems like poverty tourism. Rather, as Darren tells it, his paid volunteer experience not only benefited those he wished to serve without displacing local workers or otherwise hurting the local community, but also had such a profound effect on him that he wishes to continue such work by pursuing a career in development. This strikes me as an all around good situation.

In addition, it suggests that just because a participant is paying to take part in a volunteer experience does not automatically make what they are doing unbeneficial or make them an unskilled poverty tourist. While some who pay for a volunteer experience may have less than pure motives and be looking only to buy an “authentic” experience, others (like Darin) do not fall into this category. Commenter Raj Gyawali seconds this notion: “How you conduct volunteering / voluntourism makes the difference, not who paid what.”

All of this also suggests that the term “voluntourism” is a loaded one and might be worth avoiding altogether—perhaps the better way to hold the discussion is by comparing “supported” vs. “unsupported” volunteer programs (supported=organization pays; unsupported=you pay). That might relieve the debate of the images, assumptions, and judgments that are attached to “voluntourism.” [I suppose an argument could even be made that those who pay for a volunteer experience and have impure motives and hurt more than help should be termed “voluntourists,” while those who pay for a volunteer experience and have pure motives and help more than hurt should be called “unsupported volunteers.” But judging someone’s motives and whether they are “helping” is so fraught with assumption that I’d prefer not to go there.]

Commenters Matt Kolterman and Brandolon Barnett also raised another issue to debate: what do we mean when we talk about the “effectiveness” of international volunteer programs? As Matt writes, “International development is not simply about results that can be measured, nor is it about skills that can be transferred. Though the work itself is undoubtedly a vital part of an assignment, a large part of the good a volunteer can do is facilitating cultural exchange and promoting a sense of mutual understanding, both on-assignment and back at home.” Brandolon seconds this, noting that volunteer experiences abroad create more globally engaged citizens: “International volunteers maintain higher levels of civic engagement in their home countries and towards their host countries even after returning home.” [As someone who promotes the value of international exchange programs in his daily work, I agree and think Matt and Brandolon make an important point. An example from my life: my brother has done several short-term volunteer gigs in Ghana. His work there mainly involved leading grant-writing courses.  Was he successful? From a “results” standpoint, it’s debatable: he admits his students are not necessarily better grant writers than before (though in some cases they are). But the fact that he now has a group of Ghanaian friends with whom he keeps in regular contact, and that he now better understands and has a deep affection for Ghana (and the same is true of Ghanaian friends and their view of the U.S.) tells me that the cultural exchange aspect of his experience was a great success.]

In the end, I think my initial judgment of voluntourism (“not only a way to give back but also a means to gain short-term experience working abroad”) was too simplistic—I’m not saying I was right or wrong, only that the topic is too complex for definitive answers. This is also why I have been uncomfortable throughout with the pronouncements of “If you are paying, how much good can you be doing?”—because that is also too simplistic. It might be true, but it’s not necessarily true. It’s never as simple as we’d like it to be.

Alanna’s opinions from the initial post are still very important for anyone pursuing an international (development) career to think about. Consider your potential international volunteer options wisely: research the organization, find out the details of the project, how long you will be there, who you will be serving, and how you will be serving them. Think deeply about any potential volunteer experience (whether supported or unsupported) and consider the impact you will have on the project and local community. It’s important to know, as Alanna pointed out, that some international development agencies, whether you agree with it or not, might not look highly upon an unsupported (or voluntouristic) experience on your resume. It’s important to consider the possibility that just because you want to do good doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing good. All of this can’t be boiled down into a set of tidy recommendations, of easy dos and don’ts; rather, they are points that should be considered in the context of your individual and specific situation. Don’t discount a program simply because it’s asking you to pay; in the same way, don’t assume the best about a program simply because it will support you. Reserve judgment of any volunteer program and its efficacy until all the facts are known.

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8 Responses to “Intl. development volunteering: dispelling the rosy view, ctd.”

  1. Jo says:

    Think the Peace Corps is more about the cultural exchange component (re: your brother) than anything else, despite the fact that volunteers do spent 27 months in host country, and could be doing so much development work.

    Or, rather, that the cultural exchange component is the only positive that’s close to being guaranteed.

  2. Alanna says:

    I’d add – be wary of any program which talks more about the benefits to you – the volunteer – than to the population you’re seeking to serve.

    And I think the fear of poverty tourism is overstated. I’ve never met anyone who had that attitude, whether their volunteer program was paid or unpaid.

    I think your commenters made some great points; I too was moved by Darrin’s anecdote.

    I did ask around, though, and my view on the nil-to-negative career benefit of short-term unsupported (to use your term) volunteering does seem to be representative of the world of big international development organizations. People will want to keep that in mind if they hope to use volunteering to enhance their resumes.

  3. Thanks for the follow-up, Mark! You did a great job of distilling the comments made in response to your earlier post on Ms. Shaikh’s position that “almost everyone you pay to volunteer with is either a little bit shady, or doing work that doesn’t have much impact.”

    It’s true that the quality and impact of “voluntourism” operators varies greatly, which is probably why there are some who have negative opinions on the industry in general. But, there are many good operators out there, both for-profit and nonprofit, that are making a positive impact in the communities in which they work while providing a meaningful (and, in many cases, life-changing) experience to the volunteers. Your advice to readers, that they “don’t discount a program simply because it’s asking you to pay; in the same way, don’t assume the best about a program simply because it will support you,” is spot-on. [By the way,’s International Volunteerism Resource Center is a great reference for those who are considering volunteering abroad and evaluating their options (

    I’m still puzzled, though, by the idea that “some international development agencies…might not look highly upon an unsupported (or voluntouristic) experience on your resume” when you apply for a job. Whether a volunteer worked with a reputable organization that has a great record of leveraging volunteer contributions in a sustainable way or not, how can a reviewer be so presumptuous about an applicant’s experience and intentions? Honestly, I still hold my opinion that this practice speaks more negatively about the reviewer than it does about the applicant! Big international aid organizations are frequently criticized, too, for their own approach to development, so I think it’s rather hypocritical for their resume-reviewers to pass such blind judgment on volunteer motives, impact, and knowledge gained when their experience, in fact, could be quite valuable to the organization.

    Ms. Shaikh does bring up a good point in her comment here about being “wary of any program which talks more about the benefits to you – the volunteer – than to the population you’re seeking to serve.” Those of us involved in the “voluntourism” (a term that I’m not so hot on, either) space should take note of it and continue to meet the responsibility of not only pursuing best practices and striving for sustainability, but also being publicly accountable and transparent about the extent to which we’re contributing to international development both through skills transference and cross-cultural education.

  4. Daniela Papi says:

    I want to add a totally different perspective: I think more voluntourism (as I define it below) is actually what we NEED to responsibly herd all of those looking to “do good abroad” these days, and the fact that they PAY is indeed the key, rather than more of this short term “volunteering” I see happening. And yes, I agree, people who pay to simply “volunteer” (vs. voluntour) are often doing the most harm.

    Where do my biases come from:
    - I live in Cambodia and have lived here for nearly 4 years. I run an educational NGO called PEPY which we fund, in part, though “volunteer” and adventure tours.

    - Cambodia has the highest (supposedly) ratio of NGOs per capita

    - This also means there are TON of “volunteers” – many of whom are making hundreds times more than a local salary even though they are “volunteering” (take UN Volunteers for example) – which is a whole different topic, but does put into context the overuse and poor definition of the word “volunteer” in Cambodia. Many Cambodians want to “be a volunteer” when they grow up as the “volunteers” they see are the ones driving the SUVs, but I digress

    - More and more short term volunteers are either a) staying here and making volunteer positions for themselves with little to know knowledge of Cambodia or development (I would have been in this category 4 years ago and made many many mistakes because of it) or b) paying to volunteer for a short period of time (often times with groups who also have little to no knowledge about development themselves)

    - From what I’ve seen in Cambodia (and I will highlight below), these are having the least impact and often the most harm.

    In order to understand better where my perspective comes from, let me tell you how we operate our trips.

    How do PEPY Tours work: People pay a fee to join our trips (as they should, because it’s a TOUR at it’s core and they should pay for the experience to be involved in our work as we don’t want to take any passer-by non-paying person along to our projects as that takes our time and money and also doesn’t add value if not facilitated) and then they have a required fundraising minimum. That fundraising/donation amount goes straight to our programs. Hence, they are paying for an experience and then donating money ($500 minimum per week per person) to make sure that the projects they see are sustained long after they visit, by LOCAL people who aren’t popping in and out as many volunteer-run programs are.

    What do people get involved in: Either hands-on support for our programs and/or what we call “facilitated interaction” with the people/programs our ongoing work supports. We do not tell our guests months in advance that they will be painting X classroom or watching a lesson on Malaria performed by Y child club. Instead we let them know that the interaction they will have with our programs will be facilitated by our staff based on the on-goings and the needs at the time. Yes Steve (from the last post), there might be “murals painted” if a new school has been built and that is what the teachers are looking to do at that time with their students with their own designs, but we aren’t doing things like “you will build a fence on your trip next December” and asking the community and programs to sit around and wait until the foreigners, with no fence building experience, get there to “help”. My thoughts on how we design our trips here:

    What we have learned in our time in Cambodia, after doing MANY trips and programs wrong (see for a film called “Changing the World on Vacation” which highlights many of our mistakes) is that development work, ANY development work, in order to be most effective, should be defined by the constituents who are supposed to be the “beneficiaries”, should have their support and input, not just in the planning stages but in the enacting of the project (either financially, in-kind, through their labor, etc) in order for it to be valued, and should take their local input into account in the monitoring and evaluation stages as well. This is, in my opinion, how development PROGRAMS are most effective. I capitalize program to highlight that volunteering, or visiting a project for any short term, or really any term at all, is not a PROGRAM. It is an input into a program.

    Distilled: a volunteer, or voluntourist, short or long term, is only going to be as effective as the PROGRAM designed to bring them in. If the program is designed well, if the program defines if the “volunteers” need to have certain skills or not, and if the facilitation is designed to integrate the visitors into ONGOING programs in a way that is non-disruptive to the long-term goals of the project, then FABULOUS! Call it what you like, -tourism or -teer, the visitors will be able to add value, because it was DESIGNED that way.

    How do I personally define these words:

    Volunteer: anyone who is giving their time, unpaid

    Volunteer Program: a program which involved unpaid people giving their time over any period of time

    Short-term Volunteer Program: anything that is a few months or less – in some cases they have to pay to “volunteer” for a week or two. These people are paying to “volunteer” and are being sold “volunteer programs.”

    Voluntourism Program: anything that involves touring as well as “volunteering” – giving back to a program or supporting an on-going project. The worst cases define their “volunteer” portion as giving things away, though I would call that Philanthropic Tourism, and a poor version of it at that. People who pay to “see the sites and also give back” are likely being sold a “voluntourism program”.

    Why do I think “voluntourism programs” are having a better impact in many cases than “volunteer programs”, especially short-term volunteer programs where you pay? Because in the definition of voluntourism, you are saying you are here to SEE things, you are a TOURIST, you are not just here to “give” when you don’t know anything about the best ways to do that. In being defined as a tourist to begin with (something people who should be defined as such often take offense to) there is implicit in that the notion that you are NEW, and you DON’T know everything. You are here to see (and ideally to learn).

    If you are paying a “volunteer program” to take you around, especially a for-profit one, their goals must include to “make money”, as any for-profit business must do to survive. When the goal of making money overtakes the goal of supporting development responsibly, as I often think it does, volunteer program operators start selling things people are demanding, as if the volunteer market economy thrived on the same suppl and demand graph as canned beans. The problem is, when you add social responsibility into the mix of demand/supply, you are also adding another factor which is less necessary with the required product labels and content discloser requirements when packaging beans: KNOWLEDGE. Volun-shoppers often don’t have the knowledge required to successfully do their cost-benefit analysis as volun-opportunities don’t always come with a package that says: “Includes 1 part responsibly identifying partners, $1000 per person going directly to our well chosen charity, 4 parts looking after your safety, etc” – but it SHOULD. If volun-operators were responsibly marketing their programs, there would be full disclosure about what, if any, of the money is going to the programs visited, how the programs were chosen, any problems in the past and how they have been resolved, etc. The problem is, no one is demanding this, and until we, as consumers, do, people can still pack stale volun-programs into an unmarked bean can and sell it based on cost comparisons only. Us shoppers need to be asking questions, and we are not finding what we want, we need to talk about it, demand more information, or vote with our money elsewhere.

    In Cambodia, there are many places where you can “volunteer”, some paid and some unpaid. Straight up volunteering through one of these volunteer programs implies that you are there to “give” and I have to say, from what I have seen here in Cambodia, sometimes the “givers” are taking a lot more than they are able to give.

    How many orphanages take volunteers here to “teach English” for a few weeks or a few months? A ton? How many kids get to learn “head shoulders knees and toes” month after month from a new face? You get the point…. And yes, Darin from the last post, this IS how a lot of those programs get their funding, and I would argue that is a HUGE problem. They expose their students, who they should be prioritizing as the beneficiaries of their work, to new faces and new people sometimes unskilled unsupervised and in short succession, often invest more time in the volunteers themselves to “bring in more money”, and get so trapped in the cycle that they often don’t recognize that there would be other ways to bring money in, fund a local teacher to have ongoing continuity for the children, and be able to focus on their core mission. Some, in the worst cases, keep their children looking as poor as possible as they know that uneducated -teers and -tourists will give MORE because the kids “look so poor.” My thoughts on orphanage tourism in Cambodia here:

    The paying issue: If people PAY to be tourists and give back through their time, that funding can be used to support things like locally owned hotels/responsible restaurants, and the residual funds can be used to operate the long-term development programs long after the volun-people leave. Unfortunately all too often the money is used, even by groups touting themselves as NGOs, to make a profit, and little to no money is given to the projects visited. VOLUNTEERS ARE NOT FREE! Hosting a volunteer, skilled or unskilled, takes time away from the core mission of the organization as their mission, in few cases, is defined as taking care of a visiting tourist.

    It all comes down to how the program is designed and if the needs and sustainability issues of the development programs and their beneficiaries are put FIRST, above the desires of the volun-visitors. If a -teer or -tourist program is DESIGNED correctly to begin with, to support the long-term work of groups and programs following best practices in development, the impact will be highest. And, as long as the money is ending up in THOSE places, not in some operators pocket (or at minimum in addition to that), then why would PAYING be bad? In reality, the money that goes into these projects is often having more of an impact than the people themselves!

    (Please do not respond to me, as an operator of a big, shall I say politely least impactful and least-responsible “volunteer” organization did when I said this: “but if we give MONEY to these groups, we could be adding corruption.” Are you kidding me!? We, as operators, have the RESPONSIBILITY, to pick non-corrupt groups, to send volunteers OR to send money. Yes, we will make mistakes, so then we need to MONITOR and then CHANGE if/when we do. If we write ourselves get-out-of-jail-free cards simply because are sending “volunteers” and not funds and think that gets US off the hook for “aiding corruption” we are obviously completely disconnected to what happens when people volunteer. THEY give their money. And they THINK that any group they have paid an arm and a leg to travel with has done their due diligence and research for them, so why would they not want to give money to these groups? If the program is DESIGNED well, with best development practices in mind, it will also not create a “dependency” on these funds. That is the responsibility of the operator as well as the partner/NGO group when defining the program/relationship to begin with -there needs to be parameters. Should groups be able to visit a school to volun-stuff? Sure, if the program is defined well, the students are safe, and it isn’t disrupting class. Should these same people be allowed to come “do good” at school every day? No, not if is distracting from the work. There needs to be parameters set/followed/monitored/changed as needed. For example, at PEPY we allow three groups per year to visit our schools, but that was even defined when our tours were way more disruptive. Now we still limit the visit s but also time them with class presentations, school trips which allow for interaction, etc.)

    If we do good work based on best development practices and only allow visiting helpers (be they long or short term) in when they fit the PROGRAMS needs (not the visitors desires), when we wouldn’t have to be having this discussion to begin with. Those who came to help, would be doing so, and I wouldn’t have to watch “volunteers” disrupt and harm development here in Cambodia.

    PEPY members and friends are starting voluntourism101, a site sharing these types of ideas and thoughts… .coming soon.

    (Forgive the length of this. I am obviously, I hope, more passionate about development work and responsible volun-programs than I am about brevity, spelling, and proper use of punctuation!)

  5. OK – wow, I found these posts a little late, sorry guys for the late chime in! =)

    I won’t rehash what you all have said so eloquently above, but just wanted to second Alanna’s comment about being careful of companies that talk more about the benefit to you versus the community.

    As a consultant for this field, I have gone over and over again with multiple companies about the lack of community presence/information in their marketing materials. Alanna is completely right, the organizations who genuinely care about the community feature them; the ones that have other motives tend not to bother. It’s a great tell tale sign.

    Keep this great stuff going, awesome comments all!

    Daniela – wonder who that ‘least impactful and least-responsible “volunteer” organization’ is?? hmm…. =) Agree with you 100%

  6. Error: Unable to create directory /home/content/m/a/o/mao32/html/wp-content/uploads/2023/03. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Mark Overmann says:

    I agree with Alexia– thanks for the further comments and keep ‘em coming. I’m really glad we started this discussion, as it’s obviously an important one that many people feel passionately about.

  7. [...] life and, if used right, can become an institution. I wonder how this insight relates to the very deep discussion that’s been going on RE: international volunteering, voluntourism, and the merits of a [...]

  8. [...] best program for volunteer-driven development. (The forums that sparked her response are here and here.) Papi admits up front that her opinion is based on her experience in Cambodia and that PEPY Tours [...]

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