Skip to Content

Very Real Considerations For Voluntourists

We all have a tendency to be very passionate when we latch on to an idea.

So I know those of us who should have a sober think about our efforts are probably the exact people who will not do so.

Step outside your enthusiasm for a minute, though, and be sure that your intentions are being served as best they could.

Whether you're considering volunteering as part of an upcoming trip, or maybe you're a seasoned volunteer, there are a few things you should consider.

These are not items for or against volunteering outside of your home country.

More accurately, they are considerations regarding the effectiveness and direction of your efforts.

You are volunteering to be effective, right?

Here are a couple of examples to help get you in that big picture frame of mind when you're considering whether to donate your time to a cause.

Creating Dependencies

Let me tell you a story of a real problem we faced in post-earthquake Haiti.

Thousands and thousands of Haitians were (are) living in IDP camps after the significant Jan 12th, 2010 earthquake.

In disasters, IDP means Internally Displaced People and is used to differentiate them from international refugee camps.

In the case of Haiti, the average IDP camp is a vast area of tarps, sheet metal, salvage, and far too many families, all crammed together in an open space such as a farmer's field or a park.

Not a place anyone would willingly reside.

Anyways, a few months after the earthquake, a lot of volunteer groups were heavily focused on helping families move out of these camps and back onto their property.

Everyone naturally working under the assumption that camp residents would be keen to move away.

However, the actual situation that unfolded is that the families would not go.

They loved the idea of leaving the camp but weren't willing to go without the handouts of food, clothes, etc. that other volunteer groups were making in the camp.

If these families went home, they would miss out on the handouts, and so these well-meaning handout organizations were creating a considerable dependency on living in horrible squalor.

Consider then, on top of all this, the cholera epidemic that Haiti is now seeing and how IDP camps have zero sanitation.

How many families are living in potentially deadly filth so they can get their handouts?

I bring this up as something to consider because it's often tough to see the knock-off effects beyond the obvious initial benefits of a kind act.

Tiny Roadside IDP Camp - Haiti 2010
Tiny Roadside IDP Camp – Haiti 2010

Time and Money

They say that math never lies, and in this situation, that is pretty much true.

Do some math on your potential volunteer plan and see if you're effective with your help.

For example, if you buy a new pair of boots, a sun hat, and a case of bug spray, plus pay for an international flight to help an organization, are you providing more value than the sum of your expenses?

Would the organization have been better served by receiving the money you spent?

Now add the value in time and materials of any training and housing you will receive, plus the proverbial free t-shirt.

You see where I'm going here.

By the time you get your butt to an international volunteering situation, you've spent a noteworthy amount of time and money (same thing).

Maybe you should have donated that money instead? Sure, you wouldn't feel awesome, but this isn't about you.

If you're going to use up the money to volunteer, be confident that you are competent enough to be worth it.

Skills vs. Jobs

A popular point of contention with international volunteers is the “foreigner saving the day” syndrome.

What can you and your friends do that someone local to the issue can not?

Are you providing training and absent skills, or are you just doing what a local would do if they had been given a chance?

This one is often related to the time and money consideration also.

Why should you pay hundreds in airfare, etc., to go milk seals for a week, or whatever it is you want to do when your expenses could otherwise employ a local for a year to do the same job?

Look for aspects of your plan that involve training or enabling people to help themselves.

You know the saying, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

So teach that unemployed local person how to milk seals so that he can then make a living, that he previously wasn't able to, as opposed to milking seals for a week then leaving.

Perhaps I should have used a different hypothetical cause? You get the idea.


The point I'm trying to beat to death here is that I encourage you to be able to honestly list the value you are adding.

Don't generalize or gloss things over because you're caught up in the romanticism of helping.

That said, I encourage you to volunteer.

As all voluntourists should do, I also encourage you to stay involved in a sense afterward.

Tell folks about how and why you volunteered, and be around for your co-volunteers to commiserate with.

There are honestly very few things in this world as rewarding and satisfying as being directly involved in a meaningful project purely for the sake of doing the right thing.

The world doesn't have nearly enough volunteers, so we should ensure that the few we do have are useful.


About the Author: Shawn Stafford is an attractive crime fighter, and part-time nomadic freelance writer, whose other articles can be found on his subtly classy yet mediocre website, Rerunaround. You can also stalk Shawn on twitter: @shawnosaurus

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:

Joshua Johnson

Friday 3rd of December 2010

As I look forward to impending volunteer travel opportunities your post couldn't have come my way at a better time. Great insights, thank you.


Sunday 5th of December 2010

Hola Josh, thanks for reading Shawn's contribution on voluntourism!


Wednesday 1st of December 2010

Hi Shawn,

Great post. I especially liked your point about actually teaching people skills when you are volunteering, rather than just going to a place for a week, helping out and then leaving. The whole point of volunteering of helping people for me is that I or the NGO want to help people become sustainable in their own lives. Being able to work, farm, teach live for themselves. Teaching them skills is very important, but I also think that eventually the whole point is that they can do it without any help and the go on to teach otehrs within the community what they have learnt and let it snowball from there.

Again, great article and am going to check your site out now.


Thursday 2nd of December 2010

Thank you very much for the kind comment, Elise!

Phil Paoletta

Monday 29th of November 2010

Hi Shawn, Really appreciate this post. A lot of people make the assumption that volunteering is an automatic good. Traveling in Africa you consistently see people volunteering in a misguided attempt to help. I think some of the most worthwhile volunteer/NGO efforts right now are those that work in an empowerment capacity, specifically women's empowerment. The idea of paying money to go build a school somewhere, however, is deeply flawed. Thanks for this. B well, Phil


Tuesday 30th of November 2010

Thanks, Phil!

Those grey areas that complicate things work in much the same way for something like a school build. I've been part of school build projects that focus on training local craftsmen, refining blueprints and enabling more affordable materials through deals and quantity. Managed correctly, a nice school build effort can be very cool for the local community.

Comments are closed.