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Voluntourism, a word created from "volunteering" and "tourism," refers to traveling abroad to volunteer. Poorly-designed voluntourism experiences can play into a white savior narrative without doing much good. Some forms of voluntourism are ineffective or even harmful to the communities they are supposed to benefit.



Turns out that we... were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure.
—Pippa Biddle, student[1]

Voluntourism may not be very helpful if it's asking people to do things that they aren't good at doing. For example, a house built by college students with no previous experience might not be very safe.

Some voluntourist attractions do little to address the reasons why people need help in the first place. It's like putting a band-aid on a broken bone instead of asking why so many bones have been broken. Preventative measures, like helping provide clean water, adequate nutrition, and basic medical care might be more effective in reducing tragedies.[2]


Some voluntourism programs feed into stereotypes about Africa, Latin America, and other places being horrible places full of suffering.[3]

Hindering society[edit]

I am embarrassed that my work is so negligible: I sift sand at half the speed of the Haitians, and my hammering skills are laughable. Wouldn't it be better, I wonder, if we had just sent money so Grace could hire an all-Haitian crew to build these houses?
—Dorinda Elliott[4]

Voluntourist efforts that funnel support into orphanages can result in parents putting their children there. A 2005 study of Sri Lanka's orphanages found that 92% of the children there had at least one living parent.[2] Funneling money and resources into orphanages while ignoring the needs of families has encouraged parents to put their children in orphanages so the kids can have better opportunities. Some of these institutions take in large donations while leaving children in unsanitary and sparse living conditions, and failing to provide appropriate care for children with disabilities.[2]

One little girl in Haiti said "when I was in the orphanage, they fed us rotten food and I could not eat it. But if I did not eat it, there was nothing else and I went hungry. Now I am home, if I don't like the meal everyone is eating, my mum will just cook me something else."[5] Parents may send their children to orphanages because they think the children may have better opportunities there. But funding might be better focused on helping families, so the kids can stay with their loved ones instead of a revolving door of volunteers.

Using volunteer labor to do tasks, instead of hiring locals who need jobs, risks stunting the economy.[2] An effective volunteer organization should consider hiring locals for jobs ranging from hosting volunteers to selling snacks.[6] It should also avoid displacing professionals such as health professionals.[7]

When volunteers can only help so many people (e.g. giving houses to some while others stay homeless), this can exacerbate jealousy and social tensions.[4]

Evaluating efficacy[edit]

A little investigation can help determine how helpful a volunteer program is.[8][9]

  • Are volunteers adequately trained, and is their level of experience adequate for the task?
  • What is the organization's reputation?
  • Is it sustainable?
  • Do locals have a say in what the goals should be, or is it all decided by outsiders?
  • Does the organization partner with local organizations?
  • How does it evaluate its efficacy?
  • Does the program attempt to address root causes of problems?

See also[edit]