Voluntourism: The Alternative Vacation


Voluntourism — volunteering abroad — is an increasingly popular phenomenon, but it has its baggage. What organizations are good to work with, and how do you decide if a project is worthwhile?

The first episode of the recent Netflix installment of Black Mirror imagines a world in which everything is recorded, uploaded and shared, and everybody is judged according to their out-of-five-star rating. Every moment of the day is reduced to a unit of a potential popularity: how many stars will I rack up for this perfectly bitten cookie, casually tucked in next to my Picasso art latté? What about this polarized-light, backward Boomerang GIF of me doing downward dog? And what about this cute African baby I’m holding from my voluntourism vacation?

Wait a second… Were they stalking me on Instagram?

Jokes aside, voluntourism gets a bad rap for becoming a self-congratulatory ego trip. We roll up, paint some schools, pose with some babies and fly back home a week later at a ticket price equivalent to the annual wages of locals who may have done the job better and actually need the money. There are decent articles out there that outline this “assuaging our guilt” problem, alongside questions of efficiency and the interpersonal aspects — i.e. this isn’t just about me and my own spiritual journey…

People tend to locate the debate somewhere between a vision of a kind of messiah complex, and actually contributing toward meaningful change. To achieve the latter, we should recognize that crisis situations are complex and every decision we make will have (sometimes unforeseeable) consequences.

One particularly elucidating documentary, Poverty Inc. (2014), examines how subsidized corn sent from the USA to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, albeit with the best intentions, ruined business for Haitian farmers who couldn’t compete with the low prices. This undermined the country’s future economic independence and development. Immediate emergency response is important but, as we’ve seen with Hurricane Matthew, it’s only as strong as its accompanying long-term solutions. In this case, advocating to change aggressive foreign and agricultural policies.

voluntourismPoverty Inc. / PovertyCure

Leila Chambers, founder of Flying Kites, a charity that works to provide higher standards of education to children in Kenya, suggests we ask ourselves if we’re truly “committed to the cause, and not simply the experience.” Of course, it’s good to encourage meaningful personal encounters which inspire people to question structures of power and poverty. However, Chambers goes on to explain that often “the most valuable gifts [people] can bring to organizations like ours are in the time spent advocating and fundraising; meeting the children is a small part of a much greater commitment towards addressing the real needs of orphaned children.”

We’d all rather save the world while getting a sweet tan, but sometimes getting your hands dirty can just mean doing your colleagues’ dishes in the office kitchenette.

There are different types of aid projects, each with its own agenda. A friend of mine recently got back from Calais in France where they were volunteering at the now-closed refugee camp known as The Jungle. They learned how complex a crisis situation is and how different organizations have varying ideas about how volunteering should be carried out. There were charities with people who’d walk around furiously scribbling notes on clipboards. And there were charities with people instructed to run about with drills, putting up shelters and tracking down tent pegs. In this particular circumstance, two aims were apparent: long-term planning and short-term action.

The line between the two aims wasn’t so clear, however, and there were skeptics in both factions: “Don’t they realize the goal is to get them out of here, not to set up shop by the Chunnel?” vs. “What are the clipboard-ers even doing?” In a lawless refugee camp without fixed rules or hierarchy, the best you could do was try and hope something useful came of your attempt.

The politics of volunteering are always complex, it seems. On a given day, volunteers were required to make difficult decisions about how assistance would be offered and to whom. Building a shelter in one location but not another could foster resentments between different groups. There was a whole web of diplomacy involved in who got what resources and when. Sometimes the volunteers got it right; other times they didn’t. If you’re not sensitive to the nuanced dynamics of the situation, even with the best intentions you risk doing more harm than good.

All the more reason to try to make an informed decision. To get you going, here are a few examples of organizations who get the job done:

1. American Red Cross is among the most respected NGOs out there. A familiar name to many of us, it “prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.​” Since it was founded by Clara Barton in 1881, inspired by the Swiss Red Cross, the charity has expanded its efforts to provide disaster relief and aid, both nationally and internationally. According to their website, 90% of their humanitarian work is carried out by volunteers, and you can use their website to search for local and global opportunities to get involved. Many credit the Red Cross with having consolidated a strong dual approach: they research and account for underlying causes to problems, while still providing emergency relief on home soil and abroad.

voluntourismAftermath of Hurricane Matthew /AFP / Nicolas Garcia / Getty Images

2. Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is an international development charity with projects in 23 countries across Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Founded in 1958, the organization’s key focus is “fighting poverty” through improving education, health and access to food and income. It divides its approach between skilled professionals, businesses and young people to pair specific needs with specific abilities, such that knowledge and resources are efficiently put to use. Corporations have an opportunity to work alongside emerging markets in an ethical manner, and individuals have the chance to travel, learn and contribute sustainably, on the ground, in a different environment. VSO provides training for potential volunteers and assists with the various stages of the process, including accommodation and welfare, which are paid for by the charity.

…or you could go small scale:

3. L’Auberge Des Migrants is a French volunteer-run organization my friend volunteered with. Their focus for the last eight years has been helping refugees meet the basic needs of food, clothing, sanitation and shelter. The Calais Jungle has now been cleared and its occupants (those of them left) have been shipped off to “welcome centers” around France, where the wait will no doubt continue. Meanwhile, L’Auberge are organizing to move to other refugee camps in Greece, Syria and Dunkirk. You can contact them through their website or Facebook page to find out about volunteering and/or donating.

voluntourismL’Auberge Des Migrants

Or the bespoke option:

4. SkatePal operates out of Palestine’s West Bank, where it builds skate parks, teaches skateboarding and gives out donated equipment. Originally having traveled there to teach English, its founder Charlie Davis saw skateboarding as something positive and active children could do as a community in the middle of a war zone. If you’re interested in getting involved — or even starting something similar — you can connect with SkatePal through Facebook.


This last one’s not technically voluntourism, but part of the point is that projects work best when they’re local — there’s nothing stopping you from getting started in your own neighborhood!

5. The Real Junk Food Project is “a global, organic network of pay as you feel cafes” that “divert food destined for waste and use it to create delicious and healthy meals.” Most sell-by dates are gratuitous, and homelessness is pandemic; local businesses and conscious individuals can get together and make use of the plenty that’s there, reducing waste and giving back to the community simultaneously. Started in 2013 by British chef Adam Smith, the charity has since spread across Europe and Australasia. Share Adam Smith’s TED Talk and see if there’s a cafe near you. If there’s not, contact them here to find out about starting one.

voluntourismThe Real Junk Food Project

Poverty’s a complex beast and it’ll be addressed only by careful thought and dynamic action. There are plenty of potholes on the road to virtue. When clicking through TripAdvisor to plot your next alternative vacation, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  1. Is this project sustainable?
  1. Is this organization being efficient?
  1. Does this project account for short- and long-term issues?
  1. Do I really need to fly out there (or would I be better off fund-raising and sending the donations)?
  1. How would my skill set best be put to use in this project?
  1. Am I going to get a tan?

I’m kidding about that last one.

But seriously: taking the time to think about how we can help others means we can avoid ending up simply chucking money at some ego-therapy mission. And remember: if the voluntourism website insists too hard on the “guaranteed life-changing experience,” you can hazard a guess at what their priorities are…

And none of this means you can’t take photos. Just maybe put down that stranger’s baby first, you weirdo. end

Which organizations would you add to the list?



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