Skip to main content

The ethics of 'Voluntourism' - 3 students debate the issues


POLIS along with the Centre for Global Development funded 3 students to attend a conference on international volunteering, run by Tourism Concern. They have produced a handy guide for those thinking of getting involved which highlights the importance of being critically aware and asking the right questions of companies offering these opportunities.

Official Guide to Volunteering


POLIS Students are often targeted by organisations, offering them the ‘opportunity to volunteer’ overseas. Experience and research reveals that whilst a number of ethical volunteering opportunities overseas do exist, there are some unscrupulous operators willing to exploit both volunteers and ‘host communities’. There are also some well-meaning but ultimately misguided or ineffective initiatives that volunteers might find themselves involved with. This highlights the importance of being critically aware, asking the right questions and doing your research. This guide was produced by the students to aid you in your decision making process when considering volunteering opportunities.

Why paid programmes overseas aren’t always the best option – by Katie Anna Lawrence

Often students think that by volunteering overseas they are embracing new cultures, helping those less fortunate and doing a lot of good. However, this is not always the case. We are often sucked in by what looks like glossy and glamorous packages that many ‘volunteering’ companies offer us. Many volunteering industries have become more of a tourist trap, leading to many critics labelling the industry now as ‘voluntourism’. This is an industry that often does more harm than good. The industry also focuses more on the volunteer experience rather than what the provision is delivering to the local communities. You must question why are you volunteering? Is it so that you can say that you have done it? Is it to genuinely help the communities? Is it to have fun?

Let’s look at three reasons that volunteering abroad isn’t always the best option; first that it isn’t always clear who you are helping, second that it can reinforce colonial values, and third that you could actually be doing more harm than good.

  1. When you look at packages to volunteer abroad, they usually look glamorous, talking about what you will be doing, what excursions you can go on and how fantastic the people you meet will be. However, where does it say whom you will be helping, how you will be helping them and how sustainable it will be? Is there a clear set of goals that the project aims to fulfil? These would include: who does it aim to help, where, why the goal is what it is and will the goal be completed by the time you leave?

In addition, you should ask your trip provider exactly these questions. If they cannot answer them, you should probably consider taking your trip elsewhere.

To illustrate, at the Voluntourism conference, Pippa Brundell discussed a trip she took to Africa whereby she helped to build wells. As a school child she lacked the necessary skills to do this and would not have been suitably qualified at her home in the US. Therefore, when she had gone to bed she noticed the local builders rebuilding the well. This led her to question, would it not be more effective to fund projects like this rather than come over and attempt to carry them out ourselves?

  1. A question that people may be reluctant to consider, but should do, is that it instils colonial values into a post-colonial society. 87 per cent of those who volunteer in Africa are white. This leads to a thought that the rich person who is coming to help is white. This raises the prospect of the children aspiring to be like the white person. Although this is a controversial thought, it is one that needs to be tackled.
  1. Third, you need to consider that you may actually be doing more harm than good. This can be seen in a number of ways, I will explain a few:
  1. For example, many local economies rely upon volunteering. This can be problematic, for instance when the recession hit, volunteering significantly decreased. This had a serious effect upon many local economies.
  2. In addition to this, if you volunteer with children you must be especially careful. Volunteering as a teacher or in an orphanage can leave a child attached to you, when you are soon to leave for home. This can have serious psychological effects upon the child, especially if he or she is without family.
  3. Third, you must know exactly what you are signing up for. Orphanages are especially problematic for this. Don’t always assume that because you are giving money it will directly benefit the children. Often the poorest orphanages have the richest owners! A key problem in Nepal currently is children being taken from their homes to an orphanage and the orphanage being used as a tool to make money.

Why you should consider volunteering locally and how to go about it – by Michaelie Coghlan

Perhaps now that this guide has warned the reader so consciously of the consequences of voluntourism and any volunteer work that could potentially be doing more harm than actual good, you may be feeling slightly confused and hopeless as to how to go about effective volunteer work. Do not fret! There are incredible overseas opportunities run by people that are dedicated to ensuring the work they do is solely for the benefit of the community and, if you do your research right, you can get involved in something really amazing. It was pointed out at the conference that often when we think of volunteer work, we think overseas. Yet we neglect to consider that many of the issues we want to fight overseas such as poverty, lack of education opportunities, domestic violence, shortage of clean drinking water and food, the spreading of preventable disease (to name a few) are still prevalent closer to home. Whilst it is commendable to go overseas and give up your valuable vacation time to help those that are less fortunate than the rest of us, be mindful that there is unlimited volunteer work, also in desperate need of your time, where you live and it is just as rewarding.

Becoming involved in local volunteer work closer to home is easy and all it takes is a quick Google search and an unlimited amount of websites offering multiple opportunities will pop up. But to save you a little time, here are some examples to name a few:

  1. Leeds University Union – As a student and considering Leeds University has one of the best student unions in Europe (in the World??), why wouldn’t you start here!? You can check it out online at or visit the Student Activities Office on level one of the Union Building between 9:30 am until 4:30 pm. The Union offers a variety of opportunities that cater to your interests, your skills and your availabilities, providing unique advice on how to get amongst volunteering in your community. They even have a programme called ‘Give it a Go,’ which lets you try out the volunteer work and programmes before committing full time. They can even provide you with advice from a position of experience on setting up your own volunteer project. So if you’re keen to pursue a career in humanitarian work, the Union will provide you with great insight and an awesome starting point!
  2. Volunteer Centre Leeds – Here is another great centre that offers a multitude of experienced advice and fantastic volunteer opportunities within the Leeds area. It’s super easy to get in contact with them too. Check out their website for more information: . Or your can head into the Volunteer Centre in Leeds City Centre for a chat, no appointment necessary! Don’t have the time to head into town? Then contact the Volunteer Centre via email or call 0113 395 0405. They also recommend checking out volunteer opportunities on .
  3. Samaritans – Perhaps you are interested in more specific humanitarian work? Check out Samaritans, which is an organisation that was founded by a vicar called Chad Varah who at such a loss after conducting the funeral of a 14 year old girl who had taken her own life. He felt that had she had someone that was non-judgemental and supportive to talk to, perhaps the awful incident wouldn’t have happened. So he started up Samaritans whose volunteers devote their time and cause to providing a support service for anyone in need of a set of ears and an open heart and mind. It’s a fantastic nation-wide organisation who are welcoming to anyone to volunteer for a listening position, a fundraising position or someone to help run their charity shop. Check out their website and see if perhaps this is the volunteer opportunity for you!

  1. Royal Voluntary Service – This is another well-recognised nation-wide organisation that you can get involved in. Their focus is instead on the elderly in our community that are in need of assistance and support. Volunteer tasks can include helping them to get to the store, delivering a meal to them, or even walking their beloved dogs if they struggle to do so on their own. The hours and days required are flexible and it’s a unique opportunity to not only help the elderly in your community, but also get to know them and perhaps build a friendship along the way. Intrigued? Contact them on 0845 608 0122 or register your interest online at:

These are only a few of the many opportunities you can be a part of in Leeds. So check out the volunteer opportunities listed above, but also do your own research! If this is something you’re passionate about, research, research, research for hours upon end, right into the early hours of the morning until you find something that excites you and suits your needs and capabilities. At the conference, Karen Chillman spoke to us about local voluntary options. She is currently leading the Volunteer Centre in Croydon and with over 30 years’ experience in community volunteer work, she is more than an expert in the field. Her parting words to the audience were a list of questions to ask yourself about your desire to volunteer. This is so crucial because if your heart is not in it, then who is going to benefit, not those who need the help and not you either. So before you decide to commit to volunteering ask yourself these questions and if you can answer with these, you will not only get to help someone in need of assistance, but you will gain so much yourself in skills and experience.

  • Why do you want to volunteer?
  • Who do you want to help?
  • What skills do you have to offer?
  • What do you want to gain from your experience?

Hopefully these help shape the direction of your volunteer experience. Good luck and enjoy the journey!

If you are still interested in volunteering abroad, here is the lowdown on ethical options – By Lara Pettersson

Although it is important to be aware of the problems that come with ‘voluntourism’, there still are a number of ethical volunteering organisations that you can get involved in, if volunteering abroad really is something that you want to do. A number of representatives from these organisations spoke about what they do and what makes them different from the rest. A non-profit group, Crees, spoke of the importance of volunteering placements with a clear idea of what needs to be achieved in mind. They claimed that it was important to consider your intent in volunteering before signing up to anything. Not only that, but what is the intent of the organisation itself, as many are businesses rather than charities, and will therefore charge a lot more money and will be more likely to be exploiting both local people and volunteers alike. Crees runs both conservation and community placements in the Amazon rainforest, with the aim to restore damaged ecosystems and improve the livelihoods of indigenous people. The speaker from Crees, Quinn Meyer, was quick to highlight that this was no holiday, it involved long hours of hard work, but the difference is that volunteers actually do have an opportunity to change things.

Also, for those prospective volunteers who actually wish to enter the charity sector at some point in the future, the Kenyan Orphan Project runs a programme called the ‘Charity Apprentice’, in which a volunteer can learn about what it takes to work for non-profits, and developing the volunteer’s skills before their trip abroad, making them more qualified for the work they will be doing. Not only is this a good way to have a real volunteering experience, but it improves your skills, self-esteem and job prospects.

However, for those that have considered that maybe there are other ways to experience another country and culture, there are many other options out there. Companies such as Responsible Travel, provide alternative tourism opportunities for those looking for an authentic experience, whilst still benefitting the local communities. The aim for Responsible Travel is to provide a holiday in which you live “like a local”, connecting with local people, culture, food and environment – many of the qualities that attracts people to international volunteering in the first place. Similarly, the International Eco-Tourism Society focuses on community based tourism and provides sustainable development options for a variety of nations.

One thing that was made very clear when all the speakers from the organisations that I’ve mentioned and a few more, is that when looking to volunteer abroad, it is hugely important not to be afraid to ask questions! Every volunteer organisation is different, and before investing your time and money in something, it is vital to ask as many questions as you can, as well as really considering what your goals are. Whether you’re looking to volunteer and help communities, or to experience a new culture in a real and authentic way, there are many ways that voluntourism can help the less fortunate – the key is finding the right ethical organisations and not getting sucked in by appealing sounding packages online.

Read the student blogs below

The problem with Voluntourism by Katie Lawrence

Voluntourism conference by Michaelie Coughlan

Voluntourism by Lara Peterson