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Avoiding voluntourism – how to choose a volunteering project overseas

There’s been a fair amount of negative rhetoric in the media recently about volunteering abroad, or as people have come to label it: voluntourism. The Gap Yah videos highlighted a caricature everyone can recognise in at least one of their acquaintances – that self-righteous and ultimately vacuous individual who reports tirelessly on their quest for self-enlightenment in various third world countries.

So when I was thinking about quitting my job, travelling abroad and giving up some of my time to a charity, I had these concerns at the front of my mind, keen to avoid becoming part of this troubling group.

I was reminded of the stories you sometimes hear about volunteers in the UK: big businesses sending skilled employees out to help a cause, but the charity lacking the resources to prepare for it. And, whilst they don’t need the offered time, they could very much use the cash donation that comes with the deal.

So the loaned workers are deployed in the more menial daily tasks of running the organisation: gardening, cleaning, the making of coffee, the buying of staplers. Some charities even have a special wall for these volunteers, which is painted again and again to occupy different groups: lawyers, accountants, web designers – all painting that wall layer after futile layer.

Overseas volunteering also usually requires a cash donation. I imagined myself painting a school and the children carefully cleaning the paintbrushes as I turned my back, making way for the next set of idealistic westerners.

I didn’t want a gap year poverty tour. Neither did I want the opportunity to expose my very limited knowledge of DIY. I wanted to be actually useful – and to try my best to share the clumsy skills I’ve managed to assemble over my five short years in the working world.

Despite my worries, through the gap year packages and teaching placements I managed to find something perfect.

(I’m not belittling teaching as a whole here, by the way. I’m sure this is a great way to volunteer. But after witnessing the daily comparisons of one of my teachers to a womble and seeing her endure psychological torture and frequent imprisonment in classroom cupboards, I vowed to never enter the profession.)

Global Giving UK’s Field Evaluation Programme sends its volunteers to evaluate a select number of small, locally run charities in developing countries. Independently or in pairs, we visit our countries of preference – this year these range from Nepal to Indonesia – and spend five days with each project, writing a report at the end to assess their operations.

The evaluations require a great deal of skill to write and combine many areas of knowledge, our training covering everything from balance sheets to governance. Another big part of it is supporting organisations’ digital communications, which is my background.

So I feel like I’m learning a lot – and it’s knowledge I can apply to an ever more attractive future career in development. But I’m bringing to the table skills and expertise I already have, giving me the confidence and authority to be there in the first place.

There’s no arrogance to it. We’re going out to the field to understand how these projects run, and help them, if we can, to help themselves – especially when it comes to making best use of their membership of Gobal Giving, its fundraising platform, training opportunities and extensive network.

I’ve always found the philosophy of Give Directly extremely interesting – the organisation advocating that philanthropy is best done when you put the money straight into the hands of the world’s poorest.

Global Giving UK and its Field Evaluation Programme strikes a good balance between this idea and the other extreme of blind dictatorship – which can be overbearing and contribute to the negative stigma surrounding international aid and volunteering. I think it’s this balance you should primarily be looking for when choosing how to make a difference overseas.

So what do you need to do to avoid voluntourism?

  • Research – extensive and methodical google bashing is the only way to go if you’re planning to find the best volunteering fit. If possible, try to find independent testimonials from people who’ve tried schemes themselves.
  • Price – make sure you know exactly how much it will cost to take part in the scheme. If it sounds unreasonable, be suspect – it probably is.
  • Impact – most importantly, think about the impact you’ll be making – how will the project allow you to use your skills to make a real long-term difference? Or how will it develop them to help you do so in the future?

Don’t give overseas volunteering a bad name. Don’t become one of those people. Join me in using your generously gifted time to help in a real and sustainable way.

Links to get you started:

>> Global Giving UK

>> VSO


  1. My favourite voluntourism story is bunch of highschoolers who go over Kenya (this was prior to the decline in the security situation) to build a schoolhouse for some kids. They’re 17 year olds, with no building experience but their spirits are in the right place. They finish up in a couple of days, it was hard work but it was worth it. There is great celebration and self-congratulations.

    The kids jump on their bus the next morning and they feel great; they’ve made a difference!
    Unfortunately once they’ve been on the road for a half hour one of the kids realises they have forgotten one of their bags and they have to go back for it.

    They arrive to see the schoolhouse half torn down – the village has no use for an dark, airless wooden box. The children are taught in the fresh air and sunshine, except when it rains they go into a properly built building. The village just wanted the money they were being paid to host the highschoolers.

    I like this story because, for once, no one was hurt or put out of a job. I can’t say the same for other misguided or negligent voluntourism projects.

    I appreciate people that do research before they travel and advise others to do the same – thanks for this post!

  2. Great blog, but please take off Projects Abroad, they are behind some of the worse excesses of ‘voluntourism’. Good look with Global Giving, they’re an excellent organisation.

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