Voluntourism – Businesses outweigh Ethics?

Voluntourism – Businesses outweigh Ethics?

Written by: LAI Cheuk Yan

Voluntourism, which means to volunteer abroad has become a new trend in recent years. Many teenagers, most of them university students, would like to take a short trip to different developing countries to spend their gap year or vacation and contribute to the local community in some ways. Advertisements on voluntourism always emphasize how bad the condition of a region is and how participants could help them start a new life through a 2-week short volunteer trip. Moreover, organizations love to put ‘safe, trusted, affordable’  as the advertisement tagline to attract participants. These websites mark down their prices and provide 5 stars comments as if they were an Airbnb.

Figure 1: Plan My Gap Year’s Advertisements
Figure 1: Plan My Gap Year’s Advertisements

Undeniably, voluntourism has its own benefits. For example, it is a good learning experience for volunteers who choose to spend their time exploring a new culture, helping others as well as helping themselves by changing their attitude and perspective on the world. However, not all organizations are good and are helpful towards the volunteers (Sullivan, 2018). Indeed, voluntourism has created a lot of concerns: For the operators, do those projects that last for 2 weeks have sustainable benefits? Are those volunteers well-trained and capable of making “changes”? And most importantly, is the booming business of ‘voluntourism’ ethical?

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For instance, in the ‘Love Volunteers’ advertisement, a young lady was surrounded by 4 African children with their cheery faces on. The captions were not describing how the life quality of the children has been improved, but ‘Lowest Fees… the REAL deal!’. The price for ‘Projects Abroad’, a volunteering programme in Vietnam provided by an NGO is indeed  staggering, with a cost of HKD 20,400 for 2 weeks. It stated that the fee paid would be used to make sure the project is sustainable and successful. But if you look into the numbers, only 29% is the direct cost of the volunteer experience, the remaining 70% goes to indirect costs (such as rent and utilities), organizational costs, recruitment costs, taxes and revenue. Many researchers and sociologists argued that voluntourism seems to be a profit-oriented project instead of a charitable one (Loh , 2019). Rather than building a better community, it consolidates the wealth gap between the locals and wealthy nations.


Taking volunteers’ interests as the priority, advertisements that emphasizes the price leads volunteers to consider themselves more as tourists. Research shows that short-term voluntourism benefits the organizations and the volunteers more than the locals (Green et al, 2009). A volunteer mentioned that they were not trained in basic construction work and the locals had to rebuild the structure at night so that the volunteers were not aware of their failure (Biddle, 2014). Nicole Berry found that volunteers may prioritize their own interests over those of  the communities they are helping (Berry, 2014). Expecting the locals to be thankful, it in turns reinforce paternalism. In fact, volunteers often fail to solve long-term infrastructure problems, resulting in duplication of existing resources, and ultimately fail to bring real changes to the community they serve.

To be an ethical and responsible organization, voluntourism organizers should re-examine what is the ultimate goal of running such business and how they should advertise their services. Financial interest should not outweigh charity work for a volunteer organization.



Berry NS. (2014) Did we do good? NGOs, conflicts of interest and the evaluation of short-term medical missions in Sololá, Guatemala. Social Science & Medicine. Nov; 120:344-351. DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.05.006.

Green, T., Green, H., Scandlyn, (2009) J. et al. Perceptions of short-term medical volunteer work: a qualitative study in Guatemala. Global Health 5, 4. , retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1186/1744-8603-5-4

Lawrence C. Loh (2019) Opinion: Volunteering Abroad Is Popular And Problematic. Let’s Fix It, retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/09/12/754347433/volunteering-abroad-is-popular-and-problematic-lets-fix-it

Noelle S. (2018) When Volunteering Abroad Does More Harm Than Good, retrieved from


Pippa Biddle (2014). The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism , retrieved from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/little-white-girls-voluntourism_b_4834574