Voluntourism: there IS another way

Today’s post comes from Robin Pendoley, Co-Founder & CEO, Thinking Beyond Borders. TBB provides gap year opportunities for students who want to solve global issues by learning the complexities of aid directly from communities and then committing their careers to applying that expertise. TBB creates partnerships with organizations that want to share their local expertise on critical global issues with students who are passionate about learning and finding solutions. These partners invite the students to shadow and work alongside their expert staff in the field, allowing them to learn through direct experience.

The concept of volunteering and service is noble. We want to give of our time, energy, and sweat to improve the lives of others. In theory, it provides an opportunity to get to know people and cultures through an exchange based around our generosity. In many ways, it is billed as the socially responsible way to travel, and it is a key offering of many gap year programs.

While your intentions are good, international volunteering as part of tourism (or “voluntourism”) often causes far more harm than good (see Leila de Bruyne’s recent Huffington Post article). If your goals are to live in a community, have a meaningful learning and cultural exchange experience, and be socially responsible, please ask yourself two questions:

  • What skills or expertise can I bring that are not already present in the community?At any age, it is important to consider the limitations of our skills and abilities. Gap year students don’t yet have meaningful training in medicine, teaching, or even manual labor. They haven’t had a chance to learn the local customs and social systems well enough to know how to tailor their work to ensure it aligns with the existing culture of the community (this usually takes years). By attempting to meet a local need with sub-standard work, we run the risk of creating problems rather than making contributions.
  • Is the outcome of volunteering something done for or to the host community?– What one perceives as a need in someone else’s community may not actually be needed or even wanted. It is rare in the voluntourism industry to find projects initiated by a community seeking foreign volunteers. Far more often, a company approaches a community and offers to bring volunteers to paint a school, teach English, or engage in an environmental project. In a majority of cultures around the world, turning away a gift like this when it is offered is rude, even if it is something that you don’t want to accept. While we want to do something for the community, we end up doing something to the community.

Even with all of the best of intentions, voluntourism runs the serious risk of doing harm to the communities we hoped to help.

But, fear not! There is another way.

The key to successfully learning abroad through service is to focus on the learning. If we’re serious about wanting to work with communities to solve critical global issues, we have to first develop expertise to bring to the process. Communities facing challenges around the world generally haven’t solved them because they are difficult to solve.

For example, during TBB’s Global Gap Year students study HIV/AIDS and public health in South Africa. We partner with a local organization providing home-based care to those in the local townships. The students spend half of each day shadowing care-givers on their rounds visiting patients in their homes. They get to know how each of the women. They learn to be care-givers, experience the challenges of each of the patients, and witness the daily complexities of meeting the needs of an HIV/AIDS patient. The students collect data and help to account for how time and resources are utilized in each home visit.

From the outside, this fieldwork can look like it has no impact. Wouldn’t it be more productive to volunteer in an orphanage or stock shelves in a clinic? Maybe. But, our partners report that the data collected has helped the care-givers make better decisions about how to support their patients. Care-givers express pride in being able to share their expertise and reflect critically upon their own work as they help the students learn.

The students, through the fieldwork and the TBB curriculum, develop a dynamic understanding of how complex public health and the HIV/AIDS pandemic is. They come to see that more doctors, nurses, and medication won’t solve some of the most pressing and immediate needs of patients who need someone to hold their hand and chat with them in a community where they have been ostracized because of their disease. They need food and transportation to the clinic. They need emotional support to keep taking anti-retrovirals through the days when the pills make them physically ill. Without the support of local experts and a determination to learn through observation, these details are missed. And, without this knowledge, we fail to see how we can be most helpful now and in the future.

Travel. Learn. Engage with the world. Seek solutions. But, we have to do these things with humility. We have to assume that others, no matter how “poor” or “in need” they may seem, have endless amounts of knowledge and wisdom to share. When we recognize this, we are on our way to being able to doing something with other communities rather than to them.


  • […] abroad to volunteer. But stopping voluntourism doesn’t seem to be the answer. Maybe there is another way, one that can foster both cultural sensitivity and curiosity about the world. Be mindful of the organizations you participate in, be mindful of where your money goes. But […]

  • […] Today’s Post comes from Karl Laubacher, a student currently taking a gap year with Thinking Beyond Borders. TBB provides gap year opportunities for students who want to solve global issues by learning the complexities of aid directly from communities and then committing their careers to applying that expertise. Read more about how their mission aligns to EA from their founder’s post here. […]

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