Volunteering and Voluntourism WARNING: MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS

I recently had the good fortune of hearing Samantha Nutt, Founder and Executive Director of War Child, speak about her role and experiences at the frontline of many of the world’s major crises – from Iraq to Afghanistan, Somalia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone to Darfur, Sudan (samanthanutt.com). 

(Sidenote: If you ever have the opportunity to hear Samantha speak- grab it.)

When she finished speaking there were a few wet cheeks. The crowd of 600 (me included) was moved by one story in particular of a girl who, walking to a town near her home in the Congo to purchase medicine, was raped by 3 boys who cut off the soles of her feet when she attempted to run away. Nutt tried to help us understand why later the girl did not tell her mother because it would come at the risk to her chance of being married. Samantha also told us about the next time she met with the young girl and learned she had been raped a second time on that very same stretch of road. 

When we hear stories like this, inhabiting our fortunate existences- perhaps glancing across the room at our own daughters- we are horrified and upset and angry and compelled. And we should be.

It's unsurprising then, that when the room opened up to Q&A a woman got up and asked Ms Nutt about travelling to Africa to build a school.


There have been numerous articles over the past few years taking a critical stance on 'voluntourism' and what can happen when privileged first-worlders don their hero capes to swoop in and save the third world. There's even a group based out of Vancouver trying to end 'humanitarian douchery' once and for all (yup, that's a thing).

Having worked with nonprofits in a number of capacities over the past 20 or so years, it's a relief to see the issue being brought into broad daylight, because there's a problematic and widely held assumption that volunteers are just inherently super-wonderful people doing unquestionably good things. BE THE CHANGE! We can't question (or worse criticize) volunteers and volunteering because it's a sort of blasphemy against humanitarianism and all things Mother Theresa.

But a closer look at the voluntourism phenomenon shows that volunteering overseas isn't always what it's cracked up to be:

We are generally even more loath to admit that voluntourism isn't strictly happening overseas: there are plenty of volunteers who don't stray nearly so far from home to use cause work as a recreational way to travel into another environment: the land of the underprivileged, the realm of the downtrodden, the dominion of the stricken. 

A place where the privileged save the lesser. 

This novel environment just happens to be a heck of a lot closer to home. Not to mention more convenient to exploit. In these environments, some volunteers steal up to millions of dollars, while others- like The Boys Scouts of America- have a subterrainean cohort sexually molesting and abusing countless children in their care and resulting in some of the largest punitive damages ever awarded over sexual molestation

But wait, there's more.

Volunteer Arsen, like this volunteer firefighter who, although not 'on the job', ironically started a fire and burnt down someone's home. Volunteer Theft, by volunteers stealing things like cash to historical items from venerable institutions like the Buffalo History Museum. Volunteer Luring, as was the case with Victor Overfield, a Cadets volunteer, who was arrested and charged with one count of luring a child and one count of invitation to sexual touching. Then there's Christopher Whitte, a former church volunteer, who covered a whole bunch of bases, being charged with Sexual Assault, Sexual Interference, Invitation to Sexual Touching, and finally Sexual Exploitation. And it's hard to count and document the number of volunteer paramedics, basketball coaches, firefighters, and teachers accused of inappropriate contact. Some volunteers have even (while volunteering) committed manslaughter

On a lighter note, some volunteers just like the perks: a larger network, padded resume, recognition and awards or that warm and fuzzy feeling you get by 'helping' others.

Surely that's a minority! Surely the greater good outweighs less noble intentions!

I hear you. 

But if some volunteers and voluntourists are not only NOT doing good, but causing real and sometimes tragic harm why should we be so reluctant to look critically at what's going on beneath the surface?

I was at a cause event a few months ago where the organizer waved vaguely at a stack of brochures (which no one actually picked up), spending time in front of cameras, socializing, gushing about the effort and well... using a serious human rights issue as a blatant PR opportunity. If you've witnessed this before you know it's not pretty and you can't unsee it. What made the event even more cringe-worthy was a distinct 'bibles to Africa' theme: a project that produced plenty of warm fuzzies, but came nowhere close to addressing the issue. And not a slag to bibles, but when someone's basic human needs, rights and freedoms are being violated it feels... inadequate to hand them a bible. 

Or, to use another example, a pair of TOMS. 

'You don't have proper sanitation? Here are some flimsy shoes' *brushes hands*. 

Using a cause for good PR under the pretense that you are trying to help someone- handing them a pair of shoes when what they could have used was an investment in public healthis not a benign act, and it comes at a cost.

I'll be the first to admit that sometimes the 'right thing' needs to be done by any means necessary. Cause work needs to engage people whether their hearts are in the exactly right place or not. Because 
A) Who's going to be the Monitor of Intentions anyway? and 
B) if nonprofits and charities narrow their resources to only those obtained from the most well-intentioned resources would be even more scant, and the vulnerable would pay the price. 

Consider an event or campaign that's fun and frivolous, let's say the Ice Bucket Challenge. People join for the cause, sure, but how many participate solely because it became a fun viral stunt? At the end of the day, if a real issue is being addressed because a bunch of people who didn't entirely care drove millions in donations, are we going to shut it down? Probably not, but that doesn't exempt it from critical analysis either.
... there is a world of difference between ill-considered decisions taken for the purpose of stroking a traveler's ego, and subjective decisions to volunteer after properly considering as much of the moral and practical detail of your engagement as possible. (Richard Stupart, from CNNs  Does 'voluntourism' do more harm than good?)

To the woman wanting to build a school in Africa, Samatha Nutt counselled (and I'm paraphrasing):

Voluntourist projects like that can actually take jobs away from locals. 
The projects are often completed by unskilled labourers and the work later has to be redone properly anyway
The community may have no other infrastructure or resources to support the project after voluntourists leave, so it disintegrates, gets looted and sits empty.

Instead, if you want to support and experience Africa, go there. Purchase things from local merchants, support the economy and listen to the stories people have to share. Better yet, take time to learn how our buying habits directly impact violence, instability and war in other countries and make the change that matters.

Feel good 'busy work' is not about supporting the people and development of Africa, it's about feeling good.


Feel Good Projects are intended to do exactly that: make us feel good; however, some side effects may occur:

  • It is possible to hurt the intended aid recipients. 
  • Ill conceived projects may lead to mediocre results, causing more work.
  • Any short term benefits may disintegrate without long term sustainability plans and engaging aid recipients as equals
  • Resources such as attention, time, energy and money may be drained away from real problems and solutions.
  • Handing someone a bandaid for a bullet hole may lead to contempt in intended save-ees.  

Look critically, beyond doing what feels good
Strive to understand the impact and implication of actions (positive and negative) 
Recognize that development is complex
Try examining how habits may be contributing to the problem
Treat people as equals who are capable of engaging and finding their own solutions

Have an opinion on volunteering or voluntourism? TWEET ME