In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

Click here to explore the full "Ethical Inquiry" series.

What are the ethics of tourism? The September 2011 Ethical Inquiry asks this question, and deals with the broader tourism phenomenon of individuals visiting nations with no other aim than to enjoy the region and their time - with both potential positive and negative consequences. Read the Inquiry here.

Inspired by the related Ethical Inquiry "What are the ethics of tourism?" Ethics Center Leadership Council member Heather Yoon '15 prepared a summary of some of the potential negative and positive impacts of tourism, along with some suggestions for more ethical tourism. View or download her one-page summary [PDF].

Ethical Inquiry: May 2013


Helping or Hurting? The Ethics of Voluntourism

"Voluntourism has both helped and hurt [this] country. It provides economic gains to our society and an increase in cross-cultural communication, which is important, but it also brings entitled rich young people convinced they can 'save Africa,' and therefore it can sometimes do more harm than good."

– Christian, a local staff member of an international volunteer organization with placements in Ghana [source: senior thesis research of Jessye Kass '13 – pseudonym used.]

Voluntourism, a growing and popular trend, refers to the phenomenon of paying to volunteer abroad. This phenomenon, also referred to as volunteer tourism or volunteer travel, has seen extreme growth since its general inception more than half a century ago. Voluntourism has grown into a profitable industry, which many contend benefits both the consumer/volunteer and their host locations.

What are the ethical considerations of voluntourism? Are volunteers doing more harm than good? Is voluntourism inherently selfish? Do motivations of the volunteers matter? Should the benefit be more for the served or for the server? What positive impact can voluntourism make around the world? What relationships and power dynamics should be considered?

In this installment of “Ethical Inquiry” we explore the voluntourism industry, with a focus on both its ethical challenges and its contributions to the world. For an exploration of the ethical issues of tourism more broadly, including a brief discussion of voluntourism, see the Ethical Inquiry “What are the Ethics of Tourism?”

What is "Voluntourism?"

In most cases, participants in “voluntourism” programs will pay a fee to an international or local organization, and the company will place them as volunteers on a variety of projects, based on preference, usually ranging from education to health to human rights.

According to studies of such international volunteer service, participants from Australia, Canada, Europe and the United States account for the vast majority of volunteers participating in these programs. (See “Effects of International Volunteering and Service: Individual and Institutional Predictors” in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations.)

Most volunteer trips range from one week to a year or two, with the average being around six months. (See “The forms and nature of civic service: a global assessment.” [PDF], a research report from the Center for Social Development, Washington University in St. Louis.) The vast majority of volunteer projects, roughly 85%, are in the education field. (See “Effects of International Volunteering and Service: Individual and Institutional Predictors” in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations.)

A Brief History

Historically, most sources agree that the building blocks for volunteer tourism as we know it today were first laid in the 1950s with the development of arguably one of the first volunteer organizations, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), founded by Alec and Mora Dickson.

VSO was originally designed for qualified volunteers and aimed to alleviate poverty. Today, voluntourism organizations vary in their mission statements and qualifications. (See “The Rise in Voluntourism” in Travel and Leisure.) The combination of VSO, the creation of the Peace Corps and a continual social awareness of world issues seems to have contributed to the proliferation of international volunteer services.

Between the 1960s and 1990s overseas volunteering slowly began to grow in popularity, with a large boom in the 1990s spurred both by travel industries capitalizing on the popularity of these volunteer trips, and the 1992 publication of “Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures that will Benefit You and Others,” a book listing hundreds of organizations dedicated to volunteer service opportunities.

The coining of a term, the travel industry, a new social awareness and organizations that were profiting from volunteer service trips all contributed to the growth of the international volunteer tourist industry.

Today, voluntourism has skyrocketed in popularity, with volunteer organizations proliferating across the globe. Although exact numbers on volunteers change constantly, some sources believe that international volunteer service is quickly becoming the largest form of civic service worldwide. One source writes that voluntourism is “the fastest-growing sector of one of the fastest-growing industries on the planet.”

According to some sources, more than one million people volunteered overseas in 2007, with the phenomenon growing each year. Some of the more popular organizations, such as Projects Abroad, Cross Cultural Solutions, and International Volunteer Headquarters have reported yearly reports in the thousands, ranging from 10,000 annually to 30,000 over the past 15 years.

Ethical Concerns of Voluntourism

Voluntourism can be seen simply as “discretionary time and income to travel out of the sphere of regular activity to assist others in need,” (See “Social change, discourse and volunteer tourism” in Annals of Tourism Research) – or it can be viewed as elite community service projects designed to create “bountiful resumes” that supposedly demonstrate philanthropic motives but actually were undertaken out of self-interest.

Ultimately, various ethical concerns have been raised in connection with voluntourism over the past quarter century in particular. Issues include the power dynamics involved, the practical impact of the work, and the motivation of and impact on the perspectives of those involved.

ISSUE: Power dynamics and differentials

Literature from volunteer service organization Projects Abroad states that “through your chosen voluntourism project, you will not only provide aid and services to your community, you will also gain new insight from your cross-cultural immersion,” yet those who have experienced these volunteer programs or those who are critical often report a contradictory experience.

Not only do many sources disagree that much aid is contributed, or that projects are created with need in mind, but some even argue that because voluntourism, “almost always involves a group of idealistic and privileged travelers who have vastly different socio-economic statuses vis-à-vis those they serve,” there are power dynamics that exist causing cross cultural understanding to suffer as more often than not the relationships are often strained by power structures. 

Namely, with such privileged, and usually highly educated volunteers from affluent countries, (see “Effects of International Volunteering and Service: Individual and Institutional Predictors” in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations) the relationships created between the server and the served may hold “condescending and superficial relationships.”

Therefore, though one goal may be cross-cultural understanding, the power dynamics from unequal backgrounds can contribute to tensions that could harm the local communities they are claiming to assist. Some research suggests that voluntourism can often have a “paternalistic model,” in which volunteers of from wealthier areas of the world feel they know what is best for the societies they are volunteering within. However, volunteers do not always have the appropriate skills and solutions. This potentially causes further tensions in host communities.

ISSUE: Is voluntourism helpful? What is the practical impact?

Volunteers are supposedly providing needed aid for these communities, and are “doing good” for the communities they are attempting to serve. One strong concern in volunteer tourism programs is that volunteers come in unskilled and unqualified for the positions, and because their projects are usually short-term, create dependency and lack of continuity for the host communities. (See “The Development of Cross-Cultural (Mis)Understanding Through Volunteer Tourism” in The Journal of Sustainable Tourism.)

Furthermore, due to lack of skills “volunteers are often forced to take a vacation (travel, read, hang out in expat bars) because they lack the necessary skills or institutional framework to perform a meaningful social function abroad.” (See Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: Giving Back in Neoliberal Times.)

However, one positive externality toward the host communities is an economic gain. Regardless of whether volunteers accomplish goals of ‘helping,’ or create a dependence, or have superficial or paternalistic relationship, they are putting money into developing countries – which ultimately will help these countries in the long run. (See “Effects of International Volunteering and Service: Individual and Institutional Predictors” in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations; Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: Giving Back in Neoliberal Times; and “The Development of Cross-Cultural (Mis)Understanding Through Volunteer Tourism” in The Journal of Sustainable Tourism.)

Even if relationships were not, as some argue, superficial or condescending, and there were no tensions between communities, Costas Christ claims that this “giving back” mentality presents a dependency on outside assistance that is not always sustainable, and occasionally is undesired assistance, stemming primarily from a lack of knowledge of how to do what is actually needed. (See “The Givers Conundrum: can doing good be bad? As volunteer trips multiply, tough questions arise” in National Geographic Traveler

Additionally, building off concerns of said ‘giving back’ conundrum as outlined by Christ, Daniela Papi, contends in a TEDx talk that these services rarely accomplish what they are meant to achieve, are often short-term solutions to complex problems, and are therefore negating the aspect of truly helping those in need. (Cited by Brendan Rigby writing for the online development blog; see “What you should know about Voluntourism before signing up.”)

Due to these various complications, Giles Mohan and Kristian Stokke suggest that voluntourism may “do little to improve global relations if it reproduces or reinforces existing inequalities, creates dependency and a 'new form of colonialism’ contributes to elitism, or advances state interests over host community goals.”

Ultimately, these international volunteer service projects can be “ineffective and even contribute to existing or new inequalities unless programs deliberately address these threats through appropriate training, volunteer selection, sustained joint partnerships and field coordination, and accountability." While Projects Abroad and other similar organizations, such as Cross Cultural Solutions or International Volunteer Headquarters, have declared their mission is to provide cross-cultural experiences that help aid in making a difference in the world, sometimes the effect of their programs has done more harm than good and complicated a globalizing world.

Yet volunteers can sometimes simply turn into tourists, under the label of altruism.

ISSUE: Motivation of voluntourists, awareness, and personal impact

Taking into account motives of volunteers further complicates the industry. Studies suggest that motives can positively or negatively affect outcomes of service projects, and that “those on personal benefit may have less to offer host organizations and communities.” (See “On defining and measuring volunteering in the United States and abroad” in Law and Contemporary Problems.)

Youth, the leading voluntourist demographic, tend to use volunteer service as a way to help others, have fun and enhance a resume or get a job. (See “Effects of International Volunteering and Service: Individual and Institutional Predictors” in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations.) If personal gain is what is needed, why travel on the façade of altruistic volunteering if ones goal is for personal benefit without cognizance of the issues it raises?

Namely, despite desires that volunteers may have to ‘help’ their presence may even be seen as an imposition, even a form of neo-colonialism, as they may be unaware of the ineffectiveness of their volunteering sometimes further contributing to the ethical challenges.

However Stephen Wearing, in his book “Volunteer Tourism: Experiences that Make a Difference” explains that volunteers grow as individuals, strengthen self-identity and can bring their experiences back to privileged communities and help spread knowledge about different cultures; which is ultimately beneficial for the spreading of knowledge. Although cautious in his articulation of positive effects of voluntourism, Wearing focuses on the “potential positive social and environmental benefits of volunteer tourism,” while also understanding and articulating the necessary “prerequisites for a successful experience.”

Wearing suggests that to benefit communities it is crucial to understand the boundaries of this industry, what you are signing up for, what you can bring, the dynamics, the history, and what you can and cannot do and accomplish. In particular, benefits for volunteers can be explored through the potential for social consciousness invigorating participants to enact social change once returned from projects, which arguably is a positive social benefit of voluntourism.

Additionally, Gigi Starr, writing for USA Today, asserts in “What are the Benefits of Volunteering Abroad?” that volunteering abroad is beneficial (to volunteers) in that gives them a sense of altruism, a larger palate, cross cultural understanding and professional skills.

Yet however wonderful these attributes might be, they apply only to the volunteer. We know far less about outcomes for host communities. (See “A decade of service-related research: A map of the field” in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly.)

Final Thoughts

“Listen,” my friend Emmanuel says, “we do not just gain economically or from volunteers bringing insight home. Ghanaian schools get lessons from native English speakers that helps improve their knowledge of the language that helps them advance in our society. Hospitals get helping hands to assist in jobs that other people are too busy to do. Orphanages get people who give them love and attention that our regular staff do not always have the luxury of being able to do. Ghana does benefit. Yes, yes problems I see. I see the problems. But we do have goodness from volunteers, even if they don’t help in the way they think they help, it helps us. 

Emmanuel tells me this in an interview about the ethical challenges of volunteering abroad for my senior thesis research. Emmanuel is discussing Ghana specifically, where he works. But perhaps his last line, “even if they don’t help in the way they think they help, it helps us,” rings true for many volunteer abroad programs.

Voluntourism has the potential to have an impact that is more positive than negative. Ultimately, if volunteers are cognizant of the imbalance, understand what they can and cannot do, are cautious and work hard to truly develop relationships with locals, perhaps both volunteers and host communities can benefit from volunteer tourism. However without the right preparation for such volunteer trips, voluntourism has the potential do more harm than good.

Have suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding voluntourism? Let us know:

This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was researched and written by Jessye Kass ’13, a 2011 Sorensen Fellow.