Reflections from a decade of travel: Voluntourism can do more harm than good.

As travel restrictions begin to ease we ask how, if at all, should we engage with volunteer work abroad? In this blog post, our in-house writer Jasmine reflects on her own experiences and highlights some of the issues she has seen with voluntourism.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou

I’m writing this to learn from previous mistakes made before I embarked fully on my anti-colonial re-education which is an ongoing process. The inherent racism of colonial ideology that built the dominant societies we now live in is so insidious that many of us don’t even realise how much it has seeped into our own minds. Those with the freedom and means to travel have a duty to move through the world with an awareness of privilege, where power lies and how to challenge existing structures of oppression.

I was brought up with an awareness of social justice by left-wing white parents who took me to anti-racism protests growing up. They taught me about racial inequality, sexism, the climate crisis, homophobia and how they were all born from the colonial, capitalist and patriarchal society in which we live. Yet, still this was not enough to make me a safe ally to marginalised groups because the society in which I grew up conditioned me with unconscious biases and white privilege from white supremacy.

“Your desire to be seen as good can actually prevent you from doing good, because if you do not see yourself as part of the problem, you cannot be part of the solution.” ― Layla F. Saad, Me and White Supremacy

I thought I was “good”. My first big trip abroad was a volunteer trip to Morocco with a company in England who encouraged young people wanting to make a difference to fundraise to pay for their trip. I was 18.

I wanted to make a positive impact but was ignorant of my white privilege and had little idea of terms like ‘white saviorism’, ‘colonialism’ and ‘voluntourism’. But I realised after the first few days that it was performative and for the benefit of us, the western tourists, not for the communities we were supposed to be supporting.

The website of this voluntourist company boasts testimonials from previous volunteers such as “Go for it! I am a much stronger person as a result” and shows countless photos of brown and black children with smiling, benevolent white tourists posing for the pic. Looking at it knowing what I know now, it makes me squirm. It’s marketing centres the western Eurocentric narrative selling it as a “life changing” trip for the tourist rather than for the benefit of the local communities.

What is White Saviorism & Voluntourism?

White Savior refers to a white, western person who thinks they can ‘rescue’ people in overexploited economically poorer countries* or ‘fix’ problems with little to no understanding of the history, politics, needs or current context of the people/places they claim to want to ‘help’. 

The Oxford English dictionary definition of voluntourism is: A form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity. ‘At the core of voluntourism is the desire to help others’. But remember, intention is not the same as impact and impact is what matters. 

What matters to the communities in places where voluntourism is pushed by western companies is impact, not the good but often misguided intentions of the people buying these trips which are also rooted in damaging hierarchical thinking. A lot of these companies are more motivated by profit than genuinely wanting to help these communities which is itself exploitative and rooted in oppressive colonial ideologies.

There are valuable ways to engage with volunteer work abroad that contribute skilled support, centred on the locals and following their lead of what is required to meet specific needs.

But when I was in Morocco on this trip, I realised something was very off when I noticed how there were often more volunteers than local children, making it obvious that the whole thing was about lining the pockets of this corporation in the UK by over-subscribing rather than being based on the needs of these kids.

Ultimately this massaged the egos of predominantly white tourists, rather than being about offering any kind of sustainable solutions for the people the company claimed to be wanting to support. 

The kids were completely outnumbered by volunteers, and we were placed in different centres or orphanages by the day leading a fleeting activity then moving swiftly on to the next place. It was more for us than it was for them. What’s more we weren’t trauma-informed, we weren’t teachers, we weren’t trained in any way to be working with vulnerable kids. There were tons of photos taken of the kids and shared on social media without consent of guardians. That wouldn’t be acceptable here in the UK so why do we deem it so elsewhere?

Was this more harmful than helpful?

Whilst I was there one white American young woman said with a big smile on her face “Oh my god! We are changing the world one child at a time!” Honestly, that was the last thing we were doing. 

With these kinds of trips western do-gooders are buying an experience for themselves which only perpetuates Euro-centric views of the world and the colonial racist narrative othering black and brown people as those in need of help because ‘white knows best.’ It keeps us locked in hierarchical thinking. 

This imperialist ideology is rooted in the rise and height of the British Empire which is reflected in literature from the time such as Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ written in 1899. We are by no means free from this kind of thinking today.


Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 20 minute talk The Danger of a Single Story warns that if we hear only one kind of story about another person or country, we risk critical misunderstanding. This is particularly relevant to the marketing campaigns we see for charities in the west that portray a harmful stereotype of the “poor African” with dehumanising imagery and no mention of Britain’s bloody colonial history that caused the problems we see today.

These modern day volunteer trip packages aren’t about creating any real change or rebalancing structural inequality.

They’re just another step on the capitalist ladder of career development and personal development for privileged, predominantly white and middle/upper class people from rich countries.

Pippa Biddle, an American volunteering in Tanzania recalled how her group of privately educated school students had their construction work re-done each night by the local men because it was so inadequate. 

She said “We failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.”

This is the crux of it, that all the money spent on taking flights and paying for accommodation for their own life-affirming experience shrouded as a mission to ‘save the world’ could be much better spent. It should be invested in long-term solutions that empower local communities, not on an ever-changing string of unqualified volunteers who know little to nothing about the place or people they claim to be ‘helping.’ Of course building bridges between cultures is important and travel creates much needed understanding of how people around the world live. But we have to be responsibile about the ways in which we do that.

We need to follow the lead of local communities.

The next volunteer trip I took was a far more informed decision. For starters I was actually invited by the people in the community I was going to be working with. It was a mutually beneficial cultural exchange trip to learn from Palestinians living under occupation in The West Bank. 

We paid the non-profit Palestinian led organisation directly for organising essentials of the trip like food and accomodation, there was no European corporate middle man involved. We taught volunteer English conversation classes to students at a university in Nablus. In exchange we went to daily lectures, meetings and field trips to better understand the situation on the ground. 

We learnt from a number of activists including a young man who had been unjustly imprisoned by the occupation forces and was finally released after going on a hunger strike. Among others, there was also a talk by a photographer about how he stayed dedicated to his art and the challenges he faced documenting human rights abuses under occupation. 

We then took all that we learnt back to our home countries to mobilise in activism and raise awareness of what it’s like for young people in Palestine to get an education under occupation directly following the lead of our Palestinian comrades. 

They made the decisions, they told us what they needed in the form of international support, we followed. They told us their stories and it was our job to amplify their voices, re-telling their story to spread their message across the world.

This experience led me to think that in order to engage in the type of trip that has the potential to be truly supportive, it requires constant reflection, self-questioning and listening to the communities involved to understand what is best.

Work exchange sites are creating another way to volunteer abroad.

After this, I began travelling the world using work exchange sites such as WWOOF (WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms), Workaway, Helpx and Worldpackers. These are all sites that connect people travelling with hosts in the country they’re visiting. The idea is that you give an agreed number of work hours in exchange for food and board. 

Using these sites requires discernment, critical thinking and reflection to choose the hosts/organisations that are most fitted to your particular skill set so that you can support their project fully. E.g. When I was in India I saw a Workaway invite from a centre for children with special needs in a rural village requesting workers with specific equipment and the particular professional skills that my travel buddy and I had between us for the job. So we turned up with the equipment, took instruction from the local founder of the centre and got to work!

From my experience of using these sites in India, Latin America and Europe, they provide a mutually beneficial exchange offering a more meaningful way to travel where each party gets to learn from the other. Like the trip to Palestine and unlike the trip to Morocco, it felt like it was an exchange based on communication, consent and a shared experience.

The types of hosts I’ve done exchanges with have included organic farms, marketing for family run eco-tourist holiday homes and childcare. You can read more about our experience as a business with a work exchange trip in Argentina here.

However there are still criticisms of this kind of travel, with some saying that the most important and meaningful contribution westerners can make is serving the needs of the local community in their country of origin. There are urgent matters to attend to here in the UK such as food poverty with more people relying on foodbanks than ever before, the refugee crisis, the NHS being under threat and more. 

With the pandemic there has been further and equally valid criticisms of travel abroad with inequality being highlighted across the globe and the climate crisis which some say demands we must stop flying. There’re whole other articles to be written about the ethics of travel in relation to environmental impact and the pros and cons of charity work with regards to how we dismantle existing power structures but that’s all for now folks!

Have you got experience of voluntourism or is there anything you’d like to add? We’d really love to open up a discussion about this and hear from you in the comments.

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 ** Some call economically poorer countries ‘the majority world’ “The term “Majority World” is often used to remind the West that these countries outnumber them. Majority World refers to countries where most of the population resides. On the other hand, the Minority World are the nations more commonly considered “developed” where a small percentage of the earth’s population lives.

“Third World” is an old and demeaning term that does not truly describe nations in the modern era. In truth, trying to categorize nations will never be entirely accurate. Every nation has its own culture and way of life. However, if we must refer to them using categories, there are plenty of alternatives to use that should become a part of our vernacular. Using an appropriate alternative to “third world” can help change the way that the world views its nations.”

– Maura Byrne @ https://borgenproject.org/tag/majority-world/


Further Reading:

Follow @nowhitesaviours on IG for education, advocacy and action

4 Ways Humanitarian Work Abroad Reinforces the Oppression It Should Be Fighting

The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm?

The truth about voluntourism

UK based Migrant Solidarity Groups:

North East London Migrant Action Manifesto https://nelmacampaigns.wordpress.com/

SOAS Detainee Support

Solidarity not Charity https://soasdetaineesupport.wordpress.com/

Migrants’ Rights Network www.migrantsrights.org.uk

Docs Not Cops fighting to protect the NHS against Hostile Environment immigration policies www.docsnotcops.co.uk

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