Are voluntourists stupid?

By Chloé Sanguinetti

A few weeks ago J.K Rowling picked up her phone and went on an epic twitter rant against orphanage volunteering. In 13 on-point tweets she destroyed any arguments for visiting, supporting or volunteering in orphanages. Just before her, Jacob Kushner published an assassinating article about voluntourism in Haiti; Louise Linton was shredded to pieces on Twitter for lying about her gap year volunteering in Zambia all the while Barbie Saviour was taking selfies with African children.

And just a few days ago an article was published in The Huffington Post UK in which the author calls the voluntourists ‘naïve and well-meaning’ young people who have the bad habit of viewing the communities they are visiting as ‘primitive and in need of civilising’.

All these examples are just the tip of the iceberg of the current on-going international debate about voluntourism. And in the middle of this cacophony, of these accusing fingers I found myself wondering if voluntourists were stupid. The case is clearly made that it is their naiveté, their wrong assumptions about the world that leads them to enrol in volunteering missions abroad. So is it their fault? Are they that stupid that they’ve made voluntourism the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry today?

A year ago today I launched a web documentary, which also criticises the practice of voluntourism. ‘The Voluntourist’ is a 25 minutes web documentary in which were interviewed volunteers, experts and local NGOs about the impact of voluntourism to argue that poorly arranged volunteering programs are at risk of doing more harm than good. Ever since this launch I have been invited to screen the film in universities, debate at international development forums and give public talks about the dangers of voluntourism. In most cases the audience was composed solely of past and potential volunteers. For the past year I basically feel like I’ve been having one giant conversation with voluntourists.


And not once did I think to myself that they were stupid.

Having been a voluntourist myself a few years back and still feeling guilty about my experience I relate to these young volunteers. I have shared at some point their motivations, their intentions and their ideals. And I probably still share them now.

Young millenials have been raised in a world of easily accessible and overbearing information. All over the tube in London posters claim that by sending a single text you can save a child’s life. In Sydney relentless doorknockers summon you to invest the price of your daily coffee into getting an entire village out of poverty. In Paris street-fundraisers lecture you about your new shoes, arguing that this money could have built an entire school in a developing country. So it is that easy then. With a single text, the price of my shoes or my daily coffee I can SAVE lives. Why would I not think that by giving my time and going directly to these developing countries, my impact would be even greater?


Potential voluntourists are not pushed to think critically about their engagement. Universities promote voluntourism programs, companies welcome CVs with mentions of international volunteering experience. Society in general is telling volunteers that they are doing a good thing. In this respect, how can we expect them to make educated choices and step away from voluntourism?

Most of the talks I give are hard. Telling volunteers that their good intentions have become potentially harmful is not an easy message to deliver. But never once has anyone stood up to tell me I was wrong. Not one voluntourist has challenged the idea that poorly arranged programs could be harmful. That something needed to be changed. They welcomed honesty and transparency, no matter how hard it was to hear.

The only person who has ever told me I was wrong and irresponsible for promoting a film warning against voluntourism was a PR Officer for one of the major voluntourism agencies.

In the Huffington Post article I referred to earlier, the author mentions that the misconceptions of the volunteers are ‘perpetuated, perhaps accidentally, by the companies which sell “volunteering experiences”. Accidentally? Really?

So: are voluntourists stupid? No. Pointing the finger at young uneducated volunteers is too easy and only scrapes the surface of a bigger problem. Big voluntourism agencies such as Projects Abroad are guilty of profiting from the good intentions of volunteers, and their marketing strategies are far from being accidental. We, as a society, still view the developing world as helpless and in need of saving. We still value and praise the act of ‘helping’ without actually questioning if we are truly helpful. In my opinion voluntourists are pushed into thinking that they should volunteer, that it is beneficial: to them and to the local communities.

Maybe we should all start collectively educating ourselves about voluntourism; about our impact and the way we see the world. The debate about voluntourism is picking up pace. That’s great and it needs to keep going, but this debate needs to consider every single aspect of the problem rather than blaming it all on the voluntourists.

Yayasan 5



15th September 2016 at 6:10 PM - Reply

They’re not pushed to think “critically?” Come on! Since when does one have to be pushed to assess and evaluate one’s own impact on others? Naivete and gullibility are no excuse!


16th September 2016 at 2:56 AM - Reply

Hi Raquel, you’re right – naiveté is not an excuse. And voluntourists should think by themselves about their impact. But I think putting the problem of voluntourism solely on the shoulders of voluntourists is not realistic. Most of the volunteers I met were very young, and were made to believe that they were doing the right thing by volunteering abroad. In this context it is hard to evaluate your impact on others.


11th October 2016 at 9:41 PM - Reply

Well written Chloe. I agree they’re not pushed to think critically. In education overall. When I studied an Masters, Critical Thinking was key, assuming it was taught at undergraduate level. It wasn’t. Despite being a naturally curious & critical person, it was interesting to research & learn about it as an objective academic thought/writing process. I believe it would help all manner of things if this were taught at (UK) undergraduate level, including voluntourism.


11th October 2016 at 9:52 PM - Reply

Ps. No they’re not. But they are being duped because they’re being either lazy not really researching – or too trusting that organisations are good and do what they say, when most don’t. Their hope & belief in doing good overrides disbelief of reality & distrust. Which is a well meaning & optimistic desire easily disappointed by most but absolutely met by the few true responsible organisations. There needs to be more peer to peer feedback on the bad to be believed & more promotion of the good, who currently can’take cut through the crap.


2nd January 2017 at 4:15 PM - Reply

Search/replace “teach English”, “build school”, or whatever with “volunteer at gynecological clinic in your home town”, and you begin to get a sense for why the volunteer/voluntourism thing is so very messed up.

Stephen Wearing

8th April 2017 at 12:08 AM - Reply

I do find it interesting that the focus is on generally young women volunteers and the negative impacts they might or might not have without any informed research or evaluation. I also find that the metrics used to do this are generally poor or ill informed as can be seen from many of the bloggers and newspaper articles comments. It is a shame Chloé but applaud the attempt in the film to at least balance it out – I researched this area and wrote the book in 2001 Wearing S. L. (2001) Volunteer tourism: seeking experiences that make a difference, CABI, Oxon and we still do not seem to be progressing in our insights into this.

For example, does the labelling of young women undertaking volunteer tourism projects as Barbie ‘white saviour complex’ distort the reality of volunteer tourism programs and where is Ken in this debate, the gendered issues and the media valuing are part of an examination in this paper that looks at the ubiquitous Barbie doll and the gendered issues surrounding young women finding aspirational role models as global citizens who in dealing with identity dilemmas and finding ways to challenge passive femininity through volunteering are now encountered sexist and developmentaphobic stigmas from media sources.


3rd May 2017 at 4:19 AM - Reply

Hi Stephen, thank you for this input. It is an aspect I’d never actually considered before. It is true that in all my encounters with volunteers, during presentations and screenings, the room was filled mostly by women – but is this a trait of voluntourism of charity in general? And apart from Barbie Saviour I never actually stumbled upon any articles specifically targeting young women as volunteers.


26th May 2017 at 7:49 PM - Reply

Merci pour votre combat Chloé. Je viens de découvrir l’ampleur de ce phénomène pathétique.

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