Voluntourism: why westerners on holiday aren’t the answer to the developing world’s problems

Voluntourism: why westerners on holiday aren’t the answer to the developing world’s problems

Globalisation has made the world a smaller place, bringing about many positive implications for global development. In particular, global communication and travel is easier than ever before. This makes volunteering in developing nations an enticing opportunity for western travellers who want to engage in something more meaningful; it’s an opportunity to make a difference. For the most part we have far greater health care, education, social support and other opportunities at our disposal, and volunteering overseas can seem a worthier cause than volunteering at home because of this.

With globalisation comes the melding of increasingly powerful communication technologies with traditional ideas of development and missionary work. Voluntourism is big business in the western world with people eager to “do their part” whilst having a holiday. Organisations engaging in voluntourism use social media and photography to great effect, playing on the guilt of the privileged westerner. Images of innocence, abandonment, violence and western saviours cycle the media enticing voluntourists to pay for the opportunity to escape their modern vices and help suffering kids and communities that are too poor, helpless and incapable of caring for themselves.

Yes, Sunrise Cambodia does have a volunteer program for our Cambodian projects. But we require volunteers to be available for at least three months; short stays and voluntourism are not our cup of tea.  Volunteers to our projects must also possess specialist skills that are difficult to fill in-country. These much needed skills are what it takes to make a real, sustainable impact. They include: health professionals, teachers and youth leaders, counsellors and therapists, sports educators, IT specialists, researchers and communications professionals. To come to Cambodia for a short amount of time and volunteer in a general way displaces locals from meaningful employment. For example, if Sunrise was to fill carpentry job in Cambodia with a volunteer from Australia then we have given away a Cambodian’s opportunity to have gainful employment, to make a living for their family and to stimulate the local economy. This goes against our vision and projects in community development. Sunrise works very closely with communities and their leaders to help build sustainable, self-sufficient communities, not perpetuate the cycle of poverty. It is also distressing to kids in residential care who would without doubt form emotional attachments with volunteers but are then abandoned again when the volunteer goes home.

To the traveller who wants to volunteer to play with the kids at an orphanage or even to build a house, please reflect on your motives and expectations. Is volunteering for a short amount of time helping create a sustainable community and economy or is it more about making you feel like you’ve done your part to make the world a better place and give your life new meaning? Could you be negatively impacting power relations within the local work culture as a western volunteer because, even without direct training or experience in a particular field, you are considered more knowledgeable? With every good intention behind volunteering (and they are admirable), a short-stay, volunteering holiday is more likely be detrimental to the growth of a developing community.

Skilled volunteering in developing nations will forever be extremely important work. For example, a teacher who is not only educating students in a developing nation but also up-skilling the local teachers is making a long term impact. A medical professional working in their capacity as a doctor or nurse saving lives is making a huge impact – think where the world might be right now if medical professionals from western nations did not volunteer their time and skills to fight, and continue to fight, the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa. However, short, generalist volunteering just reinforces the social and economic inequalities between the western and the developing worlds. Google voluntourism and the white savior complex, read and reflect on the countless articles – long term, skilled volunteers are what’s needed.

As westerners, we need to be aware of the plight of developing nations and ways to help them, but voluntourism is not one of those ways. Slow down and consider the implications of your offer of assistance because, to to be frank, if you’re not able to provide experienced, much needed skills on the ground over a decent amount of time then the best way you can help is by raising awareness and donating to organisations that can. In our case, you can make a single or recurring donation to Sunrise Cambodia here, or you also have the opportunity to take part in our Run Amok with Sunrise Cambodia adventure and personally raise $10,000 for the kids and communities we support.

To find out more about volunteering for Sunrise in Cambodia (remember, only if you’re skilled and can commit to at least three months) or in Australia with the fundraising team, click here.

Voluntourism is not the way in Cambodia
Photography by Tony Lewis

4 thoughts on “Voluntourism: why westerners on holiday aren’t the answer to the developing world’s problems

  1. Well said. Unfortunately the marketing machines of many perpetuate the problem. …I’ve also met travellers in Cambodia who have had underwhelming experiences volunteering there. It’s an industry … which must make it difficult for organisations with genuine volunteering positions to attract the right people.

  2. I have wondered about this myself. But as a mother of a 16 year old whom has just returned from a mission trip to Cambodia, I cannot tell her about my fears and concerns for the people of Cambodia. Her aim later in life is to help out over a longer period of time and this would not have come about if she had not had first hand experience. So, in view that I can see both sides, is there an alternative way of teaching our younger generation about third world poverty? This being with the thought that they will volunteer in excess of 3 months, as I can also see once the harsh reality of poverty is felt; many will want to come home to their comfort of their western lifestyle, leaving organisations in the lurch.

  3. I have just returned from Siem Reap. Cambodia which was my 7th visit in 4 years. I have volunteered and financially supported a center…Not all centers are well known with big sponsors but have to rely on the generosity of tourists..This money buys food, school uniforms.and pays the rent ….Short time volunteers are helpful.the children improve their English and the interaction with other cultures is very good for them
    Cambodia is a very beautiful country. but very poor with very little Government assistance , your visits to most centers/orphanages are very welcome….

    Helen McLean March 12th

  4. Voluntourism is an incentitive in itself for the person traveling himself. Why not spend part of your vacation doing something meaningful to your eyes? Is it the solution maybe not but those same people who traveled their would be spending their foreign currency their isn’t it. Which will boost economy. I myself come from a third world country and it’s unfortunate to say but we literally survive on tourism and there are no voluntourism at this stage in my country. If it did this would surely increase the numbers of tourists who want to feel good while spenfing their money. You need to understand that being a ‘real’ volunteer is a great commitment. Due to my real life commitments i will not be able to put everthing on hold and spend 3 months in a country helping others cause after I would be the one in need of financial help to go about my daily life back home. That’s the reason why there aren’t so many volunteers and they’re hard to recruit. Don’t get me wrong, if i had the financial capacity to do so i would most likely necome a volunteer in some part of the world but unfortunately i have bills to pay and have to work 40hrs a week to cover for my expenses and put some money aside for a holiday.

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