Avoiding the dangers of “voluntourism”

By Roberta Geraci

Volunteering overseas is a fantastic thing, but it must be done responsibly!

Volunteering overseas is a fantastic thing, but it must be done responsibly!

A recent article by The Telegraph investigated some of the negative impacts of short-term visits by tourists on Cambodia’s orphans.

The article noted how the orphanages have become a popular tourist attraction as the number of people who visit wishing to volunteer has continued to rise, but at the same time so has “the controversy surrounding it.”

In the last five years the number of orphanages in Cambodia has dramatically increased from 153 to 269, according to a report by UNICEF. As Monica Pitrelli notes “perhaps even more troubling, UNICEF says that of the nearly 12,000 children living in Cambodian orphanages today, only 28 percent have lost both parents.” Which begs the question why are these children living as orphans?

The worry highlighted by several NGOs operating in the region is that the orphanages have become lucrative tourist attractions, where children may actually be kept in poverty in order to attract more volunteers. Saundra   Schimmelpfennig of the organisation Good Intentions are Not Enough notes that “the best way to keep donations rolling in is to keep the children at a substandard level, so that any volunteer or donor showing up will see with their own eyes how critical it is to donate to the orphanage.” Instead of these donations going toward improving the conditions for the children, it is believed that a few people are profiting from the children’s continued poverty and suffering.

While the tourists involved in volunteering at the orphanages seem to gain from the experience, it is believed that the children whom they aim to assist actually suffer. As the Human Sciences Research Council highlighted “In many cases these short term placements can actually create a great deal more harm than good.” Children are unable to build any lasting or meaningful relationships with the so-called “voluntourists” as they stay for such short periods of time, and “voluntourists” may crowd out local workers from performing the same jobs.

The article in The Telegraph serves as an important reminder for those looking to volunteer abroad about the importance of researching and selecting a well monitored and structured long term volunteer placement, over a potentially detrimental short term one. Going with a charitable organisation will help to ensure that the first priority is to help those people in need and not to make profit.

The campaign for real volunteering highlights what to avoid when looking to volunteer abroad and offers sound advice on how to choose a placement that is beneficial for all involved.


Tags: voluntourism, youth development