What I learned from… a debate on ‘Voluntourism vs. Volunteering’

A guest post by Ben Fisher, @BenFisher11.

Whether it’s as a gap year stereotype or a vision of transformative travel, volunteering overseas creates a great deal of debate. As part of the Student Volunteering Week at the University of Leeds, PIN Students Leeds, the Leeds-based student branch of Practical Initiatives Network (PIN), held a discussion to share perspectives and opinions on “Voluntourism vs. Volunteering?”

Through the hour-long discussion, five key themes and learning points emerged:

1. Partnership and Participation

It’s crucial that any project is directed by local people and addresses their needs. Several people talked about their experiences of projects that acted on the idea of “exchange”: of skills, of knowledge and of perspectives. With this comes a need to really understand the local context, and to be aware of the potential for projects to be based on patronising or imperialist assumptions.

2. What skills can volunteers offer?

“If you’re not qualified to do it in the UK, don’t do it abroad” is a sentiment that summed up a lot of discussion. Volunteers should be honest about what skills they have, whether as a qualified doctor, a fundraiser or just someone with a lot of enthusiasm. We discussed the danger of badly run projects replacing local labour with (skilled or unskilled) voluntourists and the need for projects to match volunteers to appropriate roles.

3. Long-term goals

Any development volunteering project needs to be focused on the long-term solution and ultimately aim to make itself unnecessary. Short-term interventions may be useful but could also be damaging. This was especially highlighted in projects that work with children, where short-termism and instability can be very detrimental.

4. Doing good

The ubiquitous reason for getting involved in projects – “to help people” – doesn’t automatically lead to voluntourism. Several people highlighted the existence of local problems that would benefit from the involvement of enthusiastic volunteers, and the equally important need for social action and campaigning. Overseas volunteering should be just one option in the realm of “doing good”, and it may be that being a tourist and supporting local enterprises does as much good as volunteering.

5. The importance of informed choices

We were in a room full of people who had participated in or run overseas volunteering projects, and so it was fitting that one of the final thoughts was on the responsibility we have to share our experiences and help to inform the next group of volunteers. Change comes with informed choices, advocacy and highlighting the best (and worst) practices.

PINStudentsThe range of experiences shared by attendees was itself fascinating. Some people had taken part in commercial voluntourist packages, others had independently found locally run NGOs. We were also joined by two external speakers, Dr Xavier Font from Leeds Beckett University and Mark Watson from Tourism Concern, who discussed their own experiences within the world of voluntourism.

With such a diverse set of perspectives offered it’s hard to draw a final conclusion. My thoughts are best summed up by one of the first speakers I heard: it’s hard to differentiate between so many different experiences – each opportunity needs to be judged on its own merits. Voluntourism could bring many benefits, but can so often take advantage of communities and volunteers: what’s most important for anyone looking to volunteer is to be critical.


Ben Fisher Ben Fisher is currently studying for a Masters in Sustainability (Environment and Development) at the University of Leeds. His research interest is sustainable tourism and voluntourism, and he has experience of volunteering projects in Sri Lanka and Uganda, as well as closer to home in Leeds. You can find him on Twitter at @BenFisher11.

To contribute to the “What I learned from…” PIN Blog Series, just send 3-500 words to us at practicalinitiatives@gmail.com, include a photograph of yourself, or if you’d prefer to remain anonymous, send us a topical photo you’ve taken. Include any useful links and we’ll get back to you. You can read more about the series here: Call for Contributions!


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