Will the well-intentioned volunteer please stand up?

Short trips to volunteer in different countries are non-committal and ineffective. (Adele van Wyk photo)

Short trips to volunteer in different countries are non-committal and ineffective. (Adele van Wyk photo)

Earlier this week I found myself looking at yet another Facebook profile picture. It depicted one of my friends holding a small Costa Rican child piggyback-style, paint brushes in hand, smiling energetically at the camera. The picture had gained 63 likes and 27 comments within two hours of original posting.

Everyone wants to save the world. It is human nature to crave congratulations and to want to feel accomplished. This sentiment can, however, result in a selfish attitude, in which even the things that should be done for others are done to make ourselves look better. When questions like “what will I gain from this?” or “how will this benefit me?” become the priority, I find myself asking: are there any selfless acts left in the world?

The term ‘volun-tourism’ describes the phenomenon in which volunteering has become closely associated with taking a vacation. This observation is pertinent, as many volunteer programs demonstrate characteristics strikingly similar to vacations. Both tend to be short trips, which incorporate light work and multiple expeditions. On a retreat offered by Live Different, for example, volunteers can expect to “take part in a building project, get involved in community outreach, and take some time with the children on site specific expeditions.” Live Different has named this package ‘Hero Holiday’. Go on holiday to feel like a hero.

The idea of taking a week off to help out a village in need is very attractive, but what are participants really contributing? Volunteers are not usually required to have the specific skill set necessary for building a school or installing a well. This means time and money can be wasted on flimsy, short-term projects.

Ultimately, these trips benefit the volunteers more than the community. The main motivator for taking these trips is typically the (worthy) desire to make a difference, closely followed by the desire for personal gain.

As an international development studies student, I understand the importance of getting involved in global issues. However, it is important to transfer that passion for change into things that will benefit these communities in the long run. We need to realize that change begins at the root of the problem; throwing money at these communities and hoping for the best cannot solve it.

With a little bit of education and a lot of change we can re-establish the true directive of the volunteer.


  1. Guest on October 21, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    In today’s fast paced world if people want to go lend a hand for a few weeks instead of hitting up a Caribbean all-inclusive then good for them. Take your pessimism somewhere else.

  2. Dylan Matthias on October 21, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    Very good article, Kathleen. I like that you’ve taken the time to step back and think about the issue. This side of the dialogue often gets missed.

    Sadly, money talks and image is everything. Self-less acts?

    The kind of careful consideration you mention is essential, since the large, large problems that affect much of the world are often very old and very complicated. Building a well can help, and is good, but the longer-term, larger effect should also be considered.

    Thanks for doing a small part for that conversation.


  3. Genevieve Dwyer on October 24, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    Hi Kathleen,
    Completely agree with your article.
    Going on holiday to feel like a ‘hero’ is all well and good, but voluntourists are ill equipped to deal with actual development issues, but told that they’re the solution. It’s a lie, and it’s unfair to the volunteers but more importantly it’s unfair on the people that they’re ‘helping.’
    People should be more critical of voluntourism and voluntourists, there’s not a free pass for good intentions.

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Kathleen Reid

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