Off the Board, Opinion

The hidden harm of voluntourism

While the idea of going abroad to help impoverished communities is commendable, volunteering abroad has several negative consequences that directly oppose the humanitarian intentions behind these trips. Many agencies that offer volunteer opportunities abroad sell the idea of ‘contributing to a community,’ whether by helping to build wells, schools, or even volunteering in an orphanage. These actions, however, do not necessarily result in long-term positive effects for the people they intend to help. Often, the good intentions of travellers harm these communities.

The projects undertaken during these humanitarian trips, such as building schools or other infrastructures, are generally completed by unskilled, volunteer labourers. Academics have pointed out that the lack of skills of the volunteers impedes the genuine progress of the communities: Locals often have to rebuild what volunteers have worked on during their stay. Volunteers can also obstruct opportunities for locals to have paid employment, since volunteers offer free, unpaid labour, and never work on a long-term basis. Unfortunately, these elements can lead host communities to become dependent on volunteer programs. Furthermore, some volunteer projects do not offer effective structures for communities to grow and develop by themselves—such as education or professional training—resulting in the stagnation of their socio-economic situations. Travel organizations sell volunteers the idea that their actions—which are on a very short-term basis—can positively impact a host community, without realizing that the volunteers’ lack of expertise ends up adversely affecting local communities.

Tourism has expanded in recent decades to include a different sector of voluntourism called ‘orphanage tourism’ as mentioned by UNICEF’s 2011 report. Since international donors are the main revenue source for many orphanages, offering tourists the opportunity to come visit these orphanages in person enables them to receive more funding.


This reliance on international donors turns these orphanages into another element of the tourism industry.

The consequences of orphanage tourism, however, go beyond the negative impact of unskilled volunteer labour. A supply of foreign volunteers encourages orphanages to remain dependent on charitable labour rather than hiring the staff they need. This reliance on international donors turns these orphanages into another element of the tourism industry. In most cases, volunteers go into this type of humanitarian trip with the good intention of providing emotional support and love to the orphans. But, it is important to keep in mind that these connections are short lived and sporadic, and can be quite harmful for orphans.

UNICEF mentions that volunteering in orphanages “negatively impacts children in care, who must repeatedly try to form emotional connections with different adults.” This constant cycle of connection and separation creates instability in the lives of orphaned children, who already suffer from separation anxiety at a very young age.

In general, volunteers go abroad in hopes of effecting positive changes; however, the romanticized notion of being able to create a ripple effect of positivity blinds travellers from the issues with many humanitarian trip agencies. Many travellers are not aware of the impacts they are actually leaving behind. If one is set on embarking on a volunteer trip, thorough research must be done beforehand on the purposes behind and consequences of a given trip. Some organizations, for example, like Operation Groundswell offer genuine help to host communities. The gesture of volunteering abroad is well-intentioned and admirable, but the execution of such trips remains harmful.



Laurie-Anne Benoit is the Photo Editor for the McGill Tribune. She is a U3 Psychology student.


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  1. Another important fact is that most of the “orphans” are not actual orphans, but have been trafficked or separated from relatives to generate the supply of orphaned children for these types of volunteer trips.

  2. One problem is also, that many of the major voluntourism companies have connections to review and advertising platforms:
    This was part one of a series with absolutely new findings and industry insights. You can follow us on our Facebook page for more updates on voluntourism:

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