1 October 2019

Recently, we've seen a few articles - mainly from the USA but some from the UK - criticising what they call "voluntourism". Criticism of volunteering abroad is not new, but there has been rise in it lately (more on that at the end).

We've read and reviewed a number of articles that criticise volunteering. We have chosen 3 to examine in detail in this post. We aren't linking to them because we don't promote unwarranted criticism of us or our partners. I'm sure you can find them yourself without too much trouble, if you're interested.

Article one: the claim that volunteering abroad is not helpful

The first article claims that "voluntourism" doesn't help people in need. That claim is demonstrably untrue, but let's pick apart the article in detail.

These trips usually include heartfelt pictures with local children and lengthy Instagram captions speaking to the life-changing impact of volunteering.

OK, first of all, there's nothing wrong with taking pictures of your trip. And the kids might like having their picture taken! When I went travelling, I took photos of loads of kids and they loved it - it made them feel special.

This type of tourism has become popularly and academically called “voluntourism,” a term that refers to the trend of wealthy Westerners — voluntourists — traveling to “developing” countries to vacation while participating in some kind of community service work. This community service usually consists of unskilled labor, as most volunteers have no training, and only lasts for the duration of the vacation, usually one or two weeks.

Oh dear, there's so much wrong in the above paragraph that I'll have to do it in bullet points.

  • The term "voluntourism" is indeed used by academics but not by anyone else except critics
  • The westerners aren't necessarily wealthy (although I will concede that they're wealthier than the people they work with abroad)
  • There's nothing wrong with referring to a country as "developing" (by the way, although the vast majority of full time volunteer projects are in developing countries, they also exist in the Western world - we have some in Italy, the USA and UK for example).
  • It is not usually "unskilled labor" - there are a huge variety of jobs the volunteers do
  • "No training" - sometimes. But some get trained beforehand and some are trained on the job. They're always supervised.
  • "One or two weeks" - are you completely insane?! The average length of the career break, at least in Britain, is closer to 4 to 6 months. Volunteering placements of one or two weeks exist, yes, but they're the exception rather than the rule.

Voluntourism rarely provides any meaningful changes for the local communities.

Demonstrably untrue. As well as the work, the money the author refers to that the volunteers pay contributes to the project and pays the wages of local staff as well as buying their equipment. Even if you think their work is useless, the money certainly isn't.

...it is urgent that we become more critical of voluntourism...

The first sensible thing she says. Yes, we do need to criticise ineffective projects, to examine each and every one, and as volunteers, to keep our eyes and ears open when we're on the project. If only there was an organisation dedicated to vetting such organisations - oh wait, it's us! We have the strictest approval process in the business and you can read more about it here.

...it works to enforce global inequities.

No it doesn't. In fact, the reverse is true. Whether the volunteers work with children or adults, their aim is to improve their lives, not just for the time they're working with them, but for the future. Providing a better education, business skills, resources, opportunities etc - so the benefits are felt many years into the future.

Not only is voluntourism heavily reliant on the maintenance of inequality, it is also highly profitable, which incentivizes the maintenance of these inequalities.

"Voluntourism" does not rely on the maintenance of inequality. This statement assumes that all volunteer projects work with people which is not the case - some work in conservation or focus on scientific research.

Also, there's an inherent assumption here that volunteers are somehow better off than the people they're working with. That is certainly true in financial terms, no-one is denying that, and in terms of opportunities and other advantages of being from the Western world. But volunteers learn a great deal from those in developing countries - so much so that some projects are marketed as a "skills exchange". So while there might be inequalities in terms of wealth, there certainly aren't in terms of knowledge, attitude or skills.

It is true that volunteering abroad is profitable for the organisations running the programmes. We've always been transparent about that and find it a bit odd that some people think this sort of business should not be profitable while others are. In fact, if an organisation is profitable it means it is well-run, which has benefits both for the volunteers and for the projects. They can plan for the future if they have a stable, profitable financial model behind them.

...local people rarely see any of the profits made off of their inequality.

Utter nonsense. You don't have to believe me on this either - go to your favourite volunteering organisation and ask to see their accounts! All of our partners, like us, are completely open about how and where their money is spent.

Voluntourism experiences are not designed to make meaningful changes...

Insulting to the hard-working people - both here and in developing countries - who strive to ensure their projects are meaningful, responsible and sustainable. There are lots of ways you can travel without volunteering and bringing money to a local community - if the volunteers weren't needed they wouldn't be there.

Voluntourism...most often actually inflicts great harm.

No evidence is given for this claim - because it doesn't exist. There have been individuals and individual projects that have caused harm, we freely admit that. But as a movement, no.

...orphanages are often kept purposefully squalid to guilt tourists into donating more money.

This is not a new claim and it's definitely worrying. We don't doubt that this has happened although again, the evidence is patchy - no specific orphanages are mentioned in such claims.

Note they say "tourists" not "volunteers". That is because those two groups of people are different - volunteers are much more likely to report back to their organisation if they think the children aren't being looked after properly. Tourists will sometimes visit an orphanage and make a donation but this is separate from volunteering there.

...some orphanages operate more like opportunistic businesses than charities... Furthermore, there is immeasurable emotional damage caused to the children living in these orphanages, as they continue forming bonds with tourists who abandon them.

Again, these are really valid concerns and ones that any career breaker considering volunteering abroad should take on board. If you want to avoid one of these unscrupulous orphanages, you can use one of our approved partners, talk to previous volunteers, and ask lots of questions of the volunteer organisation. They welcome questions as they're keen to have committed, responsible volunteers.

Regarding the issue of abandonment - this is less critical for older children, and in cases where volunteers are there for a long time. The orphanages have paid, local, long-term staff as well as volunteers so the volunteers aren't the only ones interacting with them. Don't forget, there are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer with children outside of orphanages too - such as in community projects or education.

The article also talks a lot about "neo-liberalism" and its "enmeshed inequalities". What it doesn't mention is that volunteering abroad can be a hands-on way of looking at and tackling such inequalities. It's not just about bringing money to a project, it's about learning how others live and - crucially - having an extra pair of eyes and ears at a project to ensure it is well-run. While there are unscrupulous operators in all kinds of establishments around the world, and many who are driven by money rather than caring for the people entrusted to them, the last thing they want is a bunch of Westerners looking too closely at what they're doing. And that's what volunteering does - it gives you a chance to get right into the heart of a community and really get to know a place.

Another strange thing about the article is that it only talks about children. Plenty of volunteer projects work with teenagers or adults. Some work with vulnerable adults and others work alongside highly capable and creative individuals who are part of an exciting community development project. And some volunteer projects have nothing to do with people - the volunteers are mending fences, shooting darts into elephants, or diving underwater to collect data on a coral reef.


Article 2: A gap year volunteer complains about everything

The title of this article is misleading as it refers to  the term "gap year" but actually focuses on volunteering. While there is overlap, the two terms are not interchangeable. Unfortunately, this is only the first mistake in an incredibly poor article, written by a naive first-year student at Yale.

The student starts with a description of her volunteer placement at a Burmese meditation centre, helping stroke victims. As she describes it, there are some obvious problems in the centre, including not training the volunteers adequately, and insufficient attention to hygiene. When volunteers feel a place is not up to standard, or the placement is not doing any good, they must absolutely call it out, so from that perspective the article is constructive.

However, we would ask volunteers speak to their volunteer agency in the first instance - people who can actually put things right - instead of just writing an article in the student newspaper. We also encourage gappers and career breakers to talk to us and we've taken anonymous complaints straight to the organisation. That way we can all fix anything that's wrong.

Let's look at some of what she says.

What I didn’t expect to receive was knowledge about the largely negative impact that programs like these and careless travelers can have on local economies in developing countries.

We are obviously disappointed and concerned that she had a bad experience. However, she's tarring the whole volunteer abroad experience with the same brush - and has no evidence to support her claim. We've pointed out above that the impact on local economies is largely positive - even if you still have issues with Western volunteers, you must still appreciate that the money they bring is positive.

But as an under-qualified, ignorant 18-year-old who didn’t know any Burmese, I was barely helpful to the patients, if not actively detrimental.

I don't doubt it. But not once does she say she asked for supervision or help with the tasks she chose. While I'm sure she feels that her impact was neutral at best, she offers no insight into how or why this might be. Did she ask for any guidance on why they were doing their tasks, or what the intended benefits were? Did she request to be transferred to other tasks that might be more useful? She doesn't say so, so I'm assuming not.

I notice she doesn't volunteer for the less glamorous tasks where she could have done some good, like washing the patients, or cooking. She complains about the "stench" but does nothing about it. So she complains that she's not having a positive impact, yet shies away from tasks where she could have made a real difference.

Also, she talks about not knowing any Burmese. She went to Myanmar, didn't bother to learn the language before she went, and complains about it when she gets there.

I performed under-qualified physical therapy on vulnerable patients. “Make them Move” was demoralizing, and did nothing other than patronize and invalidate the real struggles patients were facing.

Again, this is concerning and something that we never want to see. We encourage all career breakers to treat everyone with respect, and vulnerable adults need particular care. However, as mentioned above, she didn't appear to raise her concerns with anyone either locally or back home (she says she went on a work exchange programme which means there would be staff in the USA to help if her local supervisor did not take her concerns seriously). She does not say if the activity "Make them move" was demoralizing for her or the patients - I suspect both but as she doesn't report asking them (no Burmese, remember?) it's hard to tell.

It is incredibly selfish to travel to a developing country under the guise of improving their quality of life, when in reality, one is only benefiting themselves.

Bad syntax aside, this is the first sensible thing she says.

...it was hard to come to the realization that I had made a mistake out of intentional ignorance.

Well, first of all, credit to her for realising and admitting that she'd made a mistake. But I really take issue about her saying "intentional ignorance". Yes, she was ignorant and I think even the harshest critic would not blame an 18-year-old for being unaware.

However, with the whole internet at her fingertips, there was nothing preventing her from researching the place and the organisation before she went. She could have come to us. She could have looked at one of the review sites. She could have spoken to a previous volunteer. But she did none of these things. And she admits it too, which is insightful of her.

After realizing that the meditation center was a useless scam, I wanted to wallow in self-guilt or buy a ticket back to the States immediately, but I knew that that would be quite possibly the worst option, both economically and in terms of benefiting others. Instead, I modified my entire travel experience to simple tourism, staying in hotels along the way and visiting countries in the region.

Although it's good of her to try to travel responsibly, there are two real problems here. The first is that she makes no attempt to alert anyone about the problems she faced at the centre - she doesn't report them and doesn't even post on social media to warn other volunteers. She makes a big song-and-dance about caring for the vulnerable people she met, but she doesn't do anything to help them.

The second issue is that she made no attempt to find another volunteering placement. She knows now that she should have researched them and she could have contributed her young enthusiasm and limited skills to another project in the region. But she didn't. She decided that one bad experience means all volunteering is useless so she's not going to try to find a project that might actually benefit someone.

I did my best to contribute to the local economy, spreading what little money I could in exchange for goods and services.

I think the smugness of this sentence is possibly the most irritating part of the whole article, eclipsing her use of the word "woke". She expects some kind of credit for... paying for things?

Instagram stories of gap years that show pictures of young, brown and black boys and girls are unethical and exploitative, so don’t travel for the sake of the gram.

She criticises her work on the placement for being patronising, yet sees nothing wrong with automatically calling pictures of foreign kids "unethical" and "exploitative" despite knowing nothing about the kids or where they're from. Being poor or having dark skin doesn't automatically preclude you from wanting to have your picture taken. I get what she's saying, but it's possible that a genuine connection can be made between the kids and the Instagrammer. As I mentioned above, I've done this myself - seeing kids thrilled at someone thinking they're beautiful enough to be photographed.

She finishes the article by passing on advice to other potential gappers, not seeing the irony of being in such a poor position to dispense it.


Article 3: Volunteering abroad is automatically problematic (much like this article)

The third article differs from the first two in that it was written by a professor, rather than a student. It's interesting that this criticism is all coming from academic institutions rather than the business world - who might have a more realistic view.

...volunteering abroad is characterized as one of the biggest growth areas in the booming youth travel industry, which is valued at an estimated $173 billion.

This figure is incorrect and we researched it to prove it. The link he includes goes to a report which cites Staywyse 2012. That report cites Student Marketing, which in turn refers to a book called Youth Travel Matters from 2008. That book includes a figure of $136 billion, not $173 billion. Figures we've found (again, we're not linking to critical articles but you can find them easily enough) include $2 billion a year, and $4 billion.

That incorrect figure he cites is also estimated. Nowhere in the trail that we followed does it say who estimated that figure or how they arrived at it. Without a transparent process showing how that figure was arrived at, it's meaningless. Particularly as it doesn't say what period that covers.

The industry is also coming under increasing fire...

This is true, although as we are demonstrating, not necessarily for a good reason.

That's all balanced against... an opportunity to travel

A rather odd thing to say, given that you can travel without volunteering! What volunteering does give you is an insight into a local community, a chance to understand their culture and an opportunity to connect with locals that ordinary travellers don't tend to get. This would have been a more helpful and honest way of demonstrating the benefits of volunteering.

He then goes on to discuss his volunteer work in the Caribbean.

What I saw left me unsettled, leading to a decade of research and advocacy to encourage greater responsibility in volunteering abroad.

We'll come onto why he was so unsettled in a moment, but we have to take issue with his claim of doing a decade of research.

First of all, we know he's in the US, but in all his research he's never contacted us? We've been in this business for 16 years and know the volunteering industry inside and out. From the day we started The Career Break Site, we've encouraged volunteers to be responsible and to come to us in confidence if they have any concerns. Right from the outset, we would only work with organisations we knew and trusted, and we launched our approval scheme 10 years ago. And yet, his "research" has never led him to us?

Also, we know everyone (we're proud of that because we work very hard to build and sustain our network) and we hadn't heard of him until we found this article, so if he really is doing research, he's keeping it pretty damn quiet.

The writer then talks about the work he did in the Dominican Republic.

We knew, for example, that patients would feign symptoms to obtain free pain killers and multivitamins, which we ended up giving them anyway... Patients were being dishonest to take advantage of the volunteer enterprise...

OK, well the dishonesty of the patients is hardly the fault of the volunteering industry as a whole. And that's not exclusive to recipients of "charity" work either - it happens all over the world in many different cultures.

He also seems to be absolving himself of responsibility, like the writer of the second article. He freely admits he gave out pills to fakers yet acts like it's someone else's fault. I know there can be encouragement towards certain practices within an institution but he's ultimately responsible for his own actions.

I remember seeing some of the volunteer physicians on the team occasionally prescribing less-than-optimal antibiotics to some patients that would not be used for the same condition at home.

This is a concerning statement but the writer gives no context at all. Were other antibiotics available? Was there a reason for prescribing particular ones? Was it, for example, a cost-saving measure so antibiotics could be given to more people? I'm in complete agreement that foreigners shouldn't receive sub-standard treatment simply because of their nationality but without knowing the background, it's impossible to understand the situation.

He then describes how a group of US surgeons visited to provide tubal ligation (surgical contraception). He ignores the benefits that this project could provide - safe and effective contraception is a massively important public health issue, particularly in poor places. His concern for "marginalized women" doesn't seem to extend to the importance of them being able to access safe healthcare. He mentions the language barrier and states that the doctors:

may not have fully explained the permanent nature of the procedure to the patients during the consent process.

OK, again, this is a major concern. As we've stated above, everyone around the world deserves the same respect, dignity and opportunity to engage or decline whatever foreign volunteers are offering to them. However, he says "may not" which means again, we have patchy evidence that the consent process wasn't properly carried out.

He then moves from skilled professionals to unskilled gappers, and again, his lack of research is glaringly obvious when he cites:

[name redacted]'s sentinel piece in 2014, which first raised many of these criticisms...

Criticisms were raised long before that.

In 2013 Global Citizen was asking questions, as was the BBC that same year. In 2011 the think-tank Demos raised a similar point to the one in the blog post he cites, the Guardian was criticising volunteering abroad in 2010, and long before that, in 2006, British charity VSO asked whether Western gappers were making a long-term difference.

The fact that these criticisms of badly-run volunteer projects have been around for so long is one reason that we've always been really careful about the organisations we work with - because we have known from the outset that bad volunteer companies exist. Not only do we not want to work with them, but our partners don't want to be associated with them either.

To say criticisms were first raised in 2014 when that's ridiculously easy to disprove, is sloppy research.

He then goes on to cite similar articles saying more or less the same thing. Like the articles we've quoted from in this post, none specify the names of the projects or organisations that they're criticising (if they did, we'd be straight on the phone to them!). Meaning that readers don't know which ones to avoid. It also means it's impossible to verify their claims. There's no reason to automatically doubt them, but without the opportunity to fact-check, we are denied the opportunity to find out more.

He then goes on a tangent about changing public opinion, with the over-riding message that saying "don't go" doesn't work - and conveniently avoiding the fact that such a message does nothing to solve the problems the volunteers are attempting to tackle. He then says something sensible:

There would need to be monitoring, evaluation and accreditation of volunteer programs by an authoritative body that could highlight outstanding efforts and name and shame those that fall short of the bar.

We're already doing that, to an extent, but we do stop short of naming and shaming. The reason for this is that we don't find it constructive to slate people in our own industry (those that we criticise in this piece are outside it).

The idea of an authoritative body is certainly a good one and he does actually serve on a board of an organisation that organises responsible volunteer trips (although they are very limited and are short-term, which undermines some of his argument). In his article, and in his organisation, he doesn't make any suggestions for how a volunteer should research or evaluate the programme they're thinking of joining.

The thing is, an informal form of monitoring and evaluation already exists, in the form of feedback on social media and review sites. In our experience, the volunteer organisations that are badly-run tend to disappear fairly quickly, demonstrating that volunteer feedback and sharing stories does have an impact.

So like the other writers, he criticises volunteering abroad while offering little in the way of practical solutions.


Here are some conclusions from our review.


Valid criticism has its place

First of all, I want to say that valid criticism of volunteering abroad is really important. When specific projects, programmes or organisations are not working to the best of their ability, and when they're harming the communities they're supposed to be helping, we must absolutely call them out.

All of us have a responsibility to read and respond to such criticism and to act on any concerns we have. In fact, we welcome criticism and evaluation because it means we can keep examining what we do and maintain our good reputation, and those of our partners. It's unfortunate that most criticism doesn't single out specific establishments because it limits the action we can take. We continue to encourage volunteers and travellers to keep their eyes and ears out and share any concerns with their organisation, on social media, with authorities and with us.


The volunteer-bashing bandwagon

I feel these articles - and others like them - are jumping on a bandwagon. Suddenly it's become fashionable to criticise volunteering abroad, so everyone's doing it, even when the research is flaky and the evidence for poor practice is weak.

There are assertions that "most" volunteer organisations aren't very good but that's absolute nonsense. We are the people who work directly with them, we talk to them, we know what they're like - sometimes we even know what cars the staff drive! I can tell you with confidence that the majority of volunteer organisations here in the UK are committed to responsible, sustainable volunteering that has a positive and long-term impact on the community.

I personally find it really distasteful to direct such vitriol at people who are trying to do good. It is badly-organised programmes we should be taking aim at, not people who want to make a positive impact on the world. Yes, we must educate potential volunteers and encourage them to do their research properly. And yes, we absolutely must call out those projects and experiences that bring harm to a community. Not just by writing about them without identifying them, as these articles do, but by contacting the organisation that is sending volunteers, by naming and shaming on social media and review sites, and by informing organisations like us.


It's not all about race

One element of these articles, and others like them, is the "white-bashing" - several mention the "white saviour" complex. I'm not denying that it exists, but it seems that whenever a young, white, middle-class person wants to try to make the world better, they get criticised by old, white, middle-class people. (By the way, although the young, white person is the stereotypical profile of a gapper or volunteer, other demographics are represented, albeit in smaller numbers.)

The articles we've researched quite often mention race as an issue, but it's not a race issue and identifying it as such clouds any real problems. The idea that you shouldn't volunteer because you're a different colour from the people you are working with is silly - you can't help being white after all.

One thing we notice about such articles is that the pictures they chose do indeed depict a white Westerner with people of colour. If they were so concerned about race, why don't theyuse a picture of a black volunteer, or an Asian, or a person who is mixed-race? Because it doesn't fit the narrative - or because they just can't be bothered to find one?


Volunteering as a two-way process

The Western idea of going to "save" poor people is outdated and patronising, and we wholeheartedly agree with articles that call out this attitude.

However, volunteering can help to dispel these myths - by being marketed and experienced as a skills exchange. Encouraging volunteers to learn as they travel (which we do, along with our partners), means they open their eyes and minds to foreign cultures and begin to understand and learn from the people they're working with. Many volunteers feel privileged to work with their local supervisors and learn a great deal from them. Projects are often developed with the local community, or at the request of the local community. Volunteers are working with locals, not for them.

There's also the sense that these volunteers are completely useless, and that's categorically not true. A naive 18-year-old still has a pair of hands to do work, a willingness to learn and bright-eyed enthusiasm for the task at hand (apart from our second correspondent who refused to get her hands dirty).


The critics are offering no solutions

This is perhaps the worst part of the current trend of volunteer-bashing.

These critics want the volunteers to either stop volunteering or do more constructive volunteering (opinions vary) but apart from writing badly-researched articles, they do nothing about it.

Do you know how many of the articles we researched criticising volunteering abroad have offered a demonstrable, positive action you can take? Not one.

How many of the articles have specified which organisations or programmes are problematic? Not one.

How many have given you suggestions about how to research volunteering organisations? Not one.

It's easy to dash off a few words having a go at idealistic youngsters but a lot harder to do the kind of work we do, which is building a database of over 500 organisations, following up concerns when people email us, talking through problems on the phone and so on.

We've even engaged in a bit of subterfuge when we've had concerns - talking to former employees off the record and doing some digging when we've had nothing more than an instinct that something wasn't right. We've suffered financially because of our stance as well - turning down possible advertisers because we didn't believe they were ethical enough.


What can you do?

It's not that hard to be an ethical volunteer. Here's what you can do.

Before you go:

  1. Use the organisations listed on our site
  2. If you want to use one that's not on the site, drop us an email (in total confidence) and ask if they're whitelisted
  3. Do your research. Google the organisation, ask in Facebook groups, and request to speak to previous volunteers

Also, we will soon be releasing our entire, white-listed directory of all career break organisations, not just the volunteer ones. Sign up to our newsletter to get notified.

While you're away:

  1. Talk to the people you're working with
  2. Keep your eyes and ears open. Use your instincts. If you feel something's off, investigate. If someone tries to stop you looking at something too closely, or talking to people, that's a big red flag.
  3. Discuss any concerns with your fellow volunteers
  4. If there's someone local in authority that you trust, speak to them. Be aware that in some places, the authorities (such as the police) don't always work the way you might expect. You can approach another authority figure, such as a doctor.
  5. Contact your volunteer organisation back home.
  6. Email us or phone us (0161 4488846) we keep your details totally confidential and will investigate without revealing your name.
  7. Share your experience on social media and review sites.


Volunteering abroad has one huge advantage that the critics consistently miss - it allows you to see exactly how your money is spent. I would never discourage people from donating to charities of their choice, and most (although not all) of this money is spent wisely, but if you're a volunteer bringing your money to a project you can see first-hand where it's going. And that really is responsible.


If you've got any response to this piece, please do feed back to us. We're interested in all forms of constructive, healthy debate so we can continue to improve what we offer you, and the lives of others abroad. You can email us in confidence, or start a conversation on Twitter or Facebook.