Voluntourism – some personal opinions and resources

Living in Cambodia, I hear from so many well-intentioned people who want to “do good” for a few weeks (or worse, a few days, a few hours …) by volunteering in Cambodia (or other developing countries). There has been tons of great articles and opinion pieces written lately about why this is not necessarily a good thing, so I won’t reiterate why here. That being said, short-term volunteering and “voluntourism” keep growing as an industry so there is a clear need to continue talking about it, as it seems that not enough people are being exposed to the counter-arguments.

In brief, however, I strongly believe (based on my experiences working in a developing country for a local NGO) that short-term (read: less than three months) volunteering is, in the great majority of cases, not a good idea. That being said, I would identify the following as key points to keep in mind when considering volunteering:

  1. Volunteer for a minimum of three (3) months – if not longer. Of course, not everyone can afford to take that much time off of work and go abroad for that long. If you can’t commit that long to being abroad, then you should consider helping out remotely or with an organization back home.
  2. Research the organization you are thinking of volunteering with. That goes beyond just searching through their website. Find other people who have been to that country and ask them if they’ve heard about that organization and the type of work you’ll be doing there.
  3. Don’t pay to volunteer. The exception to this is if you want to pay a third-party organization (like 2-Way Development) to find a volunteer placement for you that matches your skills with a local organization’s needs.
  4. The work you will be doing as a volunteer shouldn’t be work that can be done locally. In other words, you should be bringing knowledge that isn’t [easily] available locally and transferring skills to local staff and volunteers. In the same line, you should only be doing work that you are qualified to be doing in your home country.
  5. Don’t bring t-shirts or toothbrushes from home to distribute to a whole village. There is literally no place on earth (where you would go as a volunteer) where basic supplies aren’t available locally.

To be clear, I don’t want to discourage people from volunteering but to understand the impacts – both positive and negative – that volunteering can have and to make informed decisions about volunteering abroad on a short-term basis. As such, here’s a selection of some of the best pieces that I’ve read on this issue*, which explain in greater detail points 1-5 above.

“Voluntourism: what you need to know before signing up” – by Brendan Rigby on WhyDev.org (also includes a lot of links!)

“Is gap year volunteering a bad thing?” – by Daniela Papi on the BBC

“The boom of Cambodia’s orphanage tourism” – by Thomas Cristofoletti (photo essay)

“Before you pay to volunteer abroad, think of the harm you might do” – by Ian Birrell in the Guardian

Friends International ChildSafe Campaign “Children Are Not Tourist Attractions”

“What’s wrong with volunteer travel?” – TED Talk by Daniela Papi

Al Jazeera’s documentary “Cambodia’s Orphan Business”

Orphanages No website

“Where are the children? Orphanage voluntourism in Ghana” – by Hanna Tabea Voelkl on WhyDev.org

And while you’re at it, you should take a look at some reasons why donating clothes (and other things) isn’t quite so simple:

“Don’t be clothes-minded: understanding the impact of donated clothes” – by Graham Milner on WhyDev.org

“Some bad news about TOMS shoes” – by John Favini on WhyDev.org

*A lot of these deal specifically with “orphanage tourism” or short-term volunteering in orphanages – that’s because it’s not only the most popular form of volunteerism but also arguably the most problematic and has thus been talked about the most.

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