Hot topic: Can volunteering be a bad thing?

How the rise of voluntourism could actually be damaging to the very communities it sets out to help.

By James Draven
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:49 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 10:35 BST
Child holding cup

Volunteering has the power to change lives — but for better or worse?

Photograph by Getty Images

In the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated coastal communities, I decided I wanted to help. I'd already planned a trip to Sri Lanka, and thought that rather than swerve the region entirely, or support their economy with tourist dollars spent on arrack-based cocktails, I'd go out there and do something useful and help my fellow humans in crisis. I'd rebuild homes and dig wells.

The fact I had absolutely zero construction experience was beside the point, surely? I contacted a tour operator that was recruiting westerners to undertake this kind of work. They wanted £2,000. I explained I already had flights and accommodation booked, I just needed them to point
me in the right direction.

The two grand, it transpired, was for them; it was their fee for enabling me to go help. This organisation, and its competitors whom I contacted, were exploiting one of the deadliest natural disasters in history for financial gain, turning the Boxing Day tsunami into a product to be sold.

Fast forward 12 years and wealthy tourists — rather than donate cash, or volunteer at home — are increasingly paying to personally go and inexpertly erect buildings and cuddle parentless children. What could possibly be wrong with that? It turns out, quite a lot. While the desire to make a difference and get one's hands dirty is honourable, the results can be negative.

According to ethical travel charity, Tourism Concern's website, 'Volunteer placements can prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs', with westerners being exploited for money and free labour, while locals struggle to find paid work doing anything other than repaving the road to Hell once the well-intentioned workforce has gone home.

By far the most alarming side-effect of voluntourism has been the rise of the 'orphanage industry'. With so many tourists willing to pay top dollar to mollycoddle foreign kids, they've inadvertently created a profitable industry; in other words, fuelled a demand for these institutions — and for orphans to fill them.

A campaign by tour operator, Responsible Travel, revealed the extent of the clandestine 'orphan trade', such as the Cambodian city with a population of just 100,000 people that housed an astounding 35 orphanages. Unicef research shows around 80% of all children in orphanages worldwide actually have one or more living parent. Families are often conned into sending their children to an institution where they think they'll have a better quality of life, while well-meaning travellers are scammed into paying to volunteer there, without so much as a basic child care qualification. There are even reports of children being 'rented' or abducted from vulnerable parents.

The high turnover rate of volunteers, who are only there for an extended holiday, means these exploited children form bonds with well-meaning carers, only to be inevitably, and repeatedly, separated from them. Maeve Kearney from Save the Children says, "We don't send volunteers overseas. We aim to encourage self-sufficiency and build skills locally, so we employ locally based staff and volunteers wherever possible." So if you want to help, that's great — but maybe you'd be better off donating your money, not your time.


I still want to physically help. what can I do?
There's a reason we no longer institutionalise children in orphanages in the UK. Giving unqualified staff access to vulnerable children increases the risk of abuse. If you feel you need to help personally, check out the Ethical Travel Guide at for worthwhile initiatives to support.

Should I avoid crisis regions?
No. The fact that Royal Caribbean continues to dock in Haiti is a good thing: the company pays taxes to the region and offers livelihoods to local craftsmen and 'voodoo' trinket vendors who are invited to set up on-site tourist shops for the small fee of US$4 (£3.20) per day.

What can I do for Haiti?
Melanie Kramers from Oxfam says, "The best way to help is by supporting an appeal which will go towards survival gear, such as food, water purification kits and materials to patch up roofs."

Published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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