Helping but not harming: a guide to ethical voluntourism



By India Horner

Volunteering abroad is often sparked by a combination of curiosity, wanderlust and the general desire to do good. But hidden behind the glamorous idea of roaming across the globe, is a sensation that goes by ‘voluntourism’.

Voluntourism is an emerging and rapidly growing global phenomenon that links volunteering with tourism. Many critics now argue that ‘voluntourism’ can produce unethical practices that cause communities more harm than good.

Volunteer in the depths of the jungle.

Volunteer in the depths of the jungle.

Volunteering abroad sounds like a generous and honourable act, doesn’t it? However, this desire to do good can often be warped into a negative form of volunteering by large scale organisations providing ‘gap year’ projects. Such projects often exploit people who wish to volunteer, by charging them large sums of money. Unfortunately, the money is then used to sustain their organisation, rather than directly implementing change in a place. Therefore, voluntourism must be carried out responsibly in order to lead to a true form of sustainable and ethical volunteering.

My motivations for volunteering were simple, I wanted to give something back to the global community, but I also wanted to make a difference.

When I began planning my gap year, I would browse for hours, days even, through the vast quantity of gap year projects on offer. Whilst many of them were appealing, 99% of these projects belonged to the type of projects mentioned above. My motivations for volunteering were simple, I wanted to give something back to the global community, but above all, I wanted to make a difference. While I am aware that this phrase sounds cliché, it seems noteworthy that I want to put a hold on global warming and reduce the amount of plastic infiltrating our water systems.

As a result, I am now interning at Greenpop. I am conscious that the work I am doing is contributing positively to the overall state of the environment. The other day at the beach I (Usain) BOLTed into the water, as a crisp packet soars into the water from a nearby family picnic. This was one of my daily contributions as a voluntourist, to reducing the amount of plastic in our oceans. In the end, I’m glad that I didn’t sign up for one of these voluntourism ‘packages’. In my personal view, I find them to be very superficial and not transparent enough about whether the funds were being used to aid communities in need.

Speaking of transparency… whilst many gap year projects claim that they are visibly benefitting society and its citizens, there are some sectors of volunteering that are more problematic than others. For instance:

  • Working with children. The general response from those who have worked with children appears to be ‘oh it’s so rewarding’. Yet, in the long-term, it is the complete opposite of rewarding for the children involved. First of all, imagine having various volunteers coming and going for months at a time, thus constantly making and breaking bonds with children. At some stage it is likely that a child will develop attachment problems, and hence this creates a recipe for long term emotional devastation. Anna McKeon, from the Better Care Network, shares an interesting article online about her personal voluntourism experience working at an Orphanage in Kenya. During this time, she noticed many issues with being an inexperienced voluntourist and working with children. 


  • Working with animals. Similarly, many voluntourists are fascinated by animals and have a strong desire to work with cute, pettable, furry creatures. What many people don’t realise, is that by working in such close proximity with animals, you may actually be putting the wildlife and ecosystems at risk. Not to mention, many voluntourists have never worked with animals before. According to Megan Webb, the community outreach program director for Oakland Animal Services in California, you must take specific care when selecting your volunteers. She suggests that “you need to really think about your organization and what the qualities of the [ideal] volunteer would be.” This includes “everything from the physical, mental, emotional, and superficial levels of qualities that they need.” What is equally worrying, is that if an organisation has limited funds, choices regarding the animals’ health and safety will be made based on what is reasonably achievable. Hence, animals can be mistreated by being used for public entertainment to boost profits, and/or be kept in poor conditions. This is not to say that all animal sanctuaries are evil, some do have standards that consider both the emotional and physical health of the animals.
People with their hands in the air.
Hands planting a tree.

So, what is the most effective way to CHANGE the world?

Volunteer to save the environment! First of all, this type of volunteering seems to have the least possible negative consequences, as long as you aren’t contributing negatively to the health of the environment. Why not find a new way to recycle your plastic bottles? Sounds perfect! What about thinking of new methods to reduce your carbon footprint? Divine! Or, how about setting up a mission to plant trees in as many places in South Africa as possible! (That’s Greenpop for you!) Treemendous! Essentially, volunteering should be about encouraging you to use your skills, whatever they may be. 

Finally… get creative, be innovative, and help us find new ways to conquer one of the world’s biggest threats: climate change. 

If you don’t… who will? 

On another note, if you are considering to try out some volunteering, but wish to combine it with a general trip abroad, here are some things that you should consider about ethical volunteering: 


  • Work to empower. Voluntourists’ ability to instantaneously change societal systems, increase GDP or reduce poverty is limited. Perhaps, this is due to the fact that volunteers do not have the right skill set, knowledge or length of time to instil such fundamental changes. Although a voluntourist may find the experience enriching, they can unintentionally cause a ripple of negative effects on a community. Instead, work to EMPOWER local citizens that you are involved with. This may involve encouraging communities to address their own needs, by introducing them to methods and ideas that they have not previously been aware of. Consequently, such an approach enables the community to assess what methods will be suitable to make progress in overcoming their challenges. Furthermore, it could steer communities away from becoming dependent on foreign aid and volunteers, in order to integrate the changes into their system.

“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life.”

  • Work to exchange. This element of volunteering includes both exchanging and sharing ideas, teaching methods, farming methods, cooking styles, health practices, language skills… the list goes on. Consequently, this introduces the communities to new practices that they may wish to adopt, hence this is one of the primary benefits of volunteering. More so, volunteers often gain new ideas to incorporate into their own lives.  
  • Work with knowledge. In order for voluntourists to empower citizens worldwide, they need to know their stuff. This may include relevant information about the political, social, cultural and economic aspects of the place that you are visiting. Not only will this enable voluntourists to communicate at ease with local citizens, but it will also permit you to understand their culture and way of life, especially if it differs dramatically from that of your own culture. However, one should not assume that you will be able to understand the entirety of a place based on thorough research.  
  • Work to protect and improve the environment. When volunteering in a foreign place, the last thing that you want to do is disrespect that place. If you see rubbish, be willing to pick it up. Be sure to respect the way in which the community takes care of its environment. 
  • Work to challenge stereotypes. During your time abroad, you probably get caught up with taking pictures of everything that you come across. Hence, the golden rule is that you shouldn’t capture images of poverty or people in suffering. Even though you may believe this is generating awareness, it can dehumanise people.
  • Above all, work with an open mind and heart. This is one of the biggest tips in order to be a responsible voluntourist, as it enables you to begin to understand the inequalities and disparities that you may be presented with on your trip.

Ultimately, these are just some guidelines on how you should approach your voluntourism. The concept of responsible voluntourism has not been created as a barrier to discourage people from volunteering, it simply aims to cultivate an ethical approach to volunteering. In an increasingly interconnected world struggling from violence, global warming etc, such kinds of cultural engagement can be beneficial in helping people to understand and be grateful for one another. If you take anything from our nuggets of advice, strive to be humble. Throughout your volunteering experience, this will be a crucial trait in order to benefit from such an enriching cultural exchange. 

Are you super keen to volunteer and do so in a responsible manner? Why not come and volunteer for Greenpop? 

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Greenpop Foundation NPC is a registered non-profit organisation. Registration Number (NPO): 151-411 NPO.

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