Voluntourism and the ‘other’: How volunteer tourism does more harm than good.

Africa Insight
7 min readMar 5, 2021
Cc: Mika Corbis from The Guardian

The field of international aid and development has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. From major organisations and institutions accused of ignoring local needs and expectations to growing weariness toward the circulation of poverty porn by development charities, the conduct of Western-orientated aid agencies has been subject to many controversies. In a previous post about the dangers of poverty porn, we spoke covered how perceptions impact our collective attitudes toward a particular place and/or group of people. Understanding how perceptions are constructed is essential to identifying how we can deconstruct toxic ideas and stereotypes around Africa. Continuing on from that, this blog seeks to address another aspect of negative perceptions: voluntourism. This is not to disparage those who have volunteered abroad as people do it with decent intentions on improving the lives of others. But good intentions are not enough and cannot be used to deflect criticism away from the broader topic of how such an industry — in the long-term — is counterproductive by perpetuating harmful ideas about Africa.

Voluntourism comprises both volunteer and tourism, combining traveling with volunteer work abroad. The idea behind the concept is to make a positive contribution to communities through educational ventures to medical support. On the face of it, this seems like a noble and decent thing to do. However, there are long-term ramifications to this practice that can have a severely detrimental impact on the very people and places that are subject to it. As touched upon previously, development is a complicated field that requires rigorous amounts of work and expertise. Even those that have devoted their lives to the field of development and aid, whether in policy or academia, are bound to make mistakes and indeed have. How then can we assume that unqualified and untrained individuals are capable of making a long-lasting impact in a way that is clear and ethical? In reality, such practices contribute to a distorted view of Africa and its inhabitants while ignoring the structural problems that enable such issues to perpetuate. In an essay for Tropical Diseases, Travel Medicine and Vaccine, the author states: “Missions (surgical or otherwise) do not address health care problems, such as poverty and overstretched health care infrastructure. ‘Fistula tourism’ does not change a broken system; without addressing a broken system, any ‘help’ can only be a short-term fix which may benefit individual patients but does not improve long-term access to quality health care.” For example, the International Interdisciplinary Journal for Research presented a harrowing conclusion: volunteer tourism organisations prop up a growing number residential facilities in South Africa that are unregistered and operating outside of the law, putting more vulnerable children at increased risk. This is only compounded further by a UNICEF analysis stating that volunteer programs related to helping orphanages can fuel human trafficking, trap children in inappropriate environments and harm their development. In Uganda, for example, a Save the Children report found that 85% of children in orphanages. Given that there is a burgeoning orphanage industry that profits from “satisfying the western desire to volunteer”, volunteer tourism industries are complicit in the flourishing of such industries that exploit children of their homes and deny them their basic, fundamental rights to secure guardianship. The study also found a link between the arrival and quick departure of volunteers was linked to negative affects surrounding socio-psychological development and long-term well-being. Rather than redress structural factors that permits such issues to fester, the band-aid approach is proven to have a rather counterproductive impact on the communities that need support. While it can be argued that it isn’t the individual’s goal to fix wide-spread, socio-economic conditions, it is undeniable that such programs exacerbate the divide between developed and developing economies. In the long-term, this damages the field of development as it legitimizes the validity of young unskilled international labour as a development solution. By relying heavily on young, unskilled volunteers who prioritize adventure and professional development over addressing difficult socio-political circumstances, voluntourism fails to align long-term aspirations of development goals with reality.

Like poverty porn, voluntourism reinforces harmful stereotypes of a “third world” that is dominated by an “us and them” mentality, creating another layer another of dependency between the “developed” and “underdeveloped.” In a recent study on voluntourism and commodification, the author notes that volunteer tourists have a perception of host communities as ‘poor but happy.’ Such a perception, aside from trivializing poverty, enforces emotional standards that neglects the nuanced issues facing these communities. Having interviewed volunteers on their experiences abroad, the author found that “the children the volunteer talks about do not really mind being poor, as they do not know with how ‘we’ live.” This contributes to an “othering” whereby one group constructs an outgroup as a negative of their own group. According to this, volunteers assume these communities don’t know how ‘we’ live and are thus backwards. In short, voluntourism perpetuates harmful perceptions of Africa and the communities within it. By constructing a narrative of host communities as poor yet comfortable, volunteer tourist industries profit from selling the oversimplified idea that such communities are destitute yet grateful for the arrival of their “savior.” If the goal of poverty porn is to instigate an emotional response through images of poverty and misery, then volunteerism serves to illustrate just how much our charity and good intentions can “save” poorer communities. It is undeniable the extent to which the process of ‘othering’ is rooted in colonialism. This is not to disparage people for having good intentions when volunteering for these missions but, instead, to draw attention to the fact that the voluntourism industry overlooks the underlying harm caused by colonialism. For example, Dr Sharon McLennan, a lecturer in development studies at Massey University’s School of People, Environment and Planning, references that media coverage of volunteers in Guinea overlooked not just the legacies of colonialism, but also the critical work that Afican health workers were undertaking. This denial of agency and lack of recognition for front-line workers is part of broader criticism leveled against the field of international development: local actors who have more experience, capabilities and understanding of structural challenges are rarely given a voice.

Beyond the damaging perceptions that voluntourism reinforces, a more profound impact can be measured in the form of emotional burnout that comes from voluntourists arriving and leaving after a short period of time. As one author analyzed, many who volunteer for these programs are “remarkably uninformed about the true reasons behind economic disparities between North and South.” This means it falls upon locals to explain the intricate and long-standing challenges that impact that specific community. If this sounds unconvincing, consider the wealth of research that links the emotional labor of constantly having to explain systemic injustice to numerous phycological health problems like burnout, distress and depression. The added pressure of explaining deep, long-running systemic challenges while also having to put on a smile for foreign volunteers highlight the emotional toll on local communities.

The underlying issue with voluntourism is that it propagates ideas and stereotypes about African communities as ‘backwards’ and their only hope for salvation is with the charity and kindness of Western-organisations promising adventures to volunteers. These ‘adventures’, however, come at the expense of those communities. In the long-term, they rely on presenting their work and volunteers as essential for helping these communities while simultaneously ignoring the work many local agents undertake. They trivialize issues such as poverty and underdevelopment by failing to showcase just how widespread these issues are and how they were able to fester as a consequence of colonialisms and repeated interventions by Western powers and institutions. Perpetuating images of communities being ‘saved’ continues the harmful trend of constructing toxic narratives about Africa. Worryingly, youth volunteering has been reconised by international institutions like the UN as a ‘viable mechanism’ for achieving a bottom-up development process. The fact such a thing is considered without examining the potential long-term challenges indicates that little is being done to address the harm being done. If development institutions and organisations are to retain any credibility going forward, the bottom-up approach needs to focus exclusively on local organisations and individuals who have a greater grip on reality than foreign volunteers.

But can reform make a substantial difference and enable volunteers to still make some meaningful impact without perpetuating harmful stereotypes? RadiAid — an awareness campaign devoted to addressing the harmful stereotypes perpetuated by charity campaigns — set out a series of guidelines for volunteers. When it advises volunteers to promote dignity, it encourages people to use social media to highlight what individuals and communities are doing to improve conditions rather than ‘sob stories’ about their “suffering” and “hopelessness.” The guidelines also stress the importance of consent and avoiding pictures of people in distressing situations. While you may think you are acting with good intentions, such photos disregard another human being’s right to privacy and exploits their situation for likes. These guidelines are critical for addressing how narratives are constructed about life across the African continent. While structural factors create a substantial number of problems, there are locally driven efforts to improve people’s lives. It is essential that these are integrated into the wider narrative in order to deconstruct toxic narratives about these communities and the people who reside in them. Good intentions must be met with ethical approaches that communicate positive ideas and approaches. Getting likes on a social media post is one thing, it is another to build genuine solidarity and a willingness to tackle harmful images and stereotypes. Volunteer charities would also benefit from focusing on the root causes of poverty and the ways that it perpetuates. This, according to freelance writer Ossob Mohamud, includes advocating for systemic reforms in World Bank and IMF practices. The platforms these charities have are significant enough to raise public consciousness about the ways such conditions persevere. This can go a long way in garnering solidarity with these communities and identify sufficient ways to address structural reform with policy reform and implementation on a global level.

About the author:

My name is James Manion and I am an intern for Africa Insight. I have a Bachelors in Politics and International Relations and a Masters in Diplomacy. I am interested in topics ranging from global development to international security and have extensive experience studying and working abroad.

If you have any enquiries about this article and its contents, I’ll be happy to respond through email at jamesmanion146@gmail.com.

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Africa Insight

Africa Insight is a Seoul-based NGO with the aim of facilitating education and awareness surrounding African development, both in Korea and worldwide.