Voluntourism or Nah?

If you have a deep desire to travel anywhere to spend a couple of weeks in voluntourism? Here is what I learned from walking the voluntourist path with white friends as a college student. Before we went I planned to see what affordable technology, able students and existing local initiatives can do to change a community, and came away with much more.

For most of the word’s history, voluntourism has been comprised of mostly white western do-gooders headed to the global South to spend time with orphaned or abandoned black or brown children often being cared for by a fellow white westerner, or connected to a white western donor network. Also, voluntourism refers to visitors from countries with high per-capita income going to a country with low per-capita income where care for children is often through children’s homes. Many of us even beyond the charity and NGO context know that voluntourism does more harm than good.


The author in 2007

About 12 years ago, I was part of a group that travelled to Uganda to learn more about food production through an student-led organization that was supporting a local agricultural collective. I was in college on break from my studies and hungry to get into the ‘real world’. To make things even more enticing, it was a chance to be back in a region that I have close ties to, and wanted to work in. I was excited to get to Uganda from Kenya with white American friends from the USA, where I was studying at the time. I had no real relevant programmatic skills in the agricultural sector, except two years of high school agriculture. I also had no country context, and only a hazy idea of rural life in Uganda. Still, here is what I learned on voluntourism.

  1. Embrace being a tourist.

You can get immersed in a totally different place even from injecting money into hostels, hotels, restaurants and other local tourist attractions. It has its own intrinsic value and valuable lessons. It was clear from the 12 hour bus journey to Uganda that this was going to be an adventurous trip. We should have just held onto this mission. Between long delays arriving in Kampala and meeting with US colleagues there before travelling to the rural area where the non-profit investment had been made, we spent a lot of time and money wandering around Kampala, eating local food, and speaking to great Kampala residents, fellow students and hostel staff. From meeting to meeting, I was struck by how fun local tourism can be in a city about 1.5 hours’ flight from Nairobi, where I lived for most of my life.

2. Voluntourism has a chequered history of abuse and long term harm.

More for my white American friends than me, as a fellow black African, I found that some of the nonprofit leaders from our host site were suspicious initially. Voluntourists today are now regarded with even more suspicion because of (a) prosecution of several volunteers who abused children in Kenya and other countries, (b) set up organisations that became a predator’s hunting ground or (c)exhibition grounds for locals as props as the Skinny B**** Collective recently did in Kenya. You will have to reckon with this horrible legacy of voluntourism in many countries. Not to mention the amount of time and energy most overstretched staff have to take to spend time and effort hosting versus doing their mission driven day-to-day work. This is not helpful, and actually robs the organisation of manpower. I saw this from our time and activities around the village.

3. Voluntourism is well known for perpetuating the white saviour complex

Celebrities have been a big reason why many of us want to become humanitarians and philanthropists. As voluntourism grows, this gives each of us a limited opportunity to be just like them for a minute. Right? No, it is a key reason why you should be careful not to participate in this kind of trip. Until as recently as the first quarter of 2019, well known charity Comic Relief used celebrities to front its fundraising appeals set in impoverished parts of the world. This practice stopped because of opposition to ‘poverty tourism’ from the public and UK leaders like David Lammy MP, who decried the use of white celebrities to perpetuate harmful stereotypes of Africans through film and prop the false white saviour complex.

4. Don’t think you — in particular — should do it.

Ultimately, we gathered lots of lessons from our road trip to the farm where the collective had received an investment. However, the lessons were mostly about ourselves, and our own lives. They had little long term value beyond our own feel-good, which can be a great take away from any volunteer opportunity. However, potential voluntourists should be aware that it is not about you, but about the communities, which best understand their own issues, and usually are already mobilized to volunteer to do the work. Give to charity projects from where you are — check out platforms that give NGOs a spotlight and give you a way to spread your impact like Global Giving,

5. When you know better, you do better

12 years into a career spent working with charities and nongovernmental organizations later, I want to say, life has a way of showing one how to do better. Fortunate to learn and be mentored, my perspective on making trips and telling other people’s stories has positively grown. It is not enough to do-good, you have to think more deeply about your impact, challenge the assumptions, and be willing to open your eyes. I would advise you and my college aged self to pick up the literature and even widely accessible short films like TED talks on voluntourism before heading to any new country as a short term volunteer tourist. And consider just being a tourist.