Volunteer tourism has become a popular experience for young white adults in the west, with priviledged backgrounds. Believing that their actions do good, they pay an organisation to be able to 'help children in need'. This is usually not the case. Volunteer tourism can be seen as a manifestation of something called white man's burden, where white, often relativly rich, people in the west think that their actions are needed to save the innocent children in the global South.
Since I study human rights, people seem to think that I'm an expert on volunteer tourism. I have gotten these questions several times:
The truth is that the organisations that work with these kind of questions can do a much better job helping than you can. So it's better to trust these organisations and donate the money directly to them instead of buying a trip from a shady company which makes money out of children who's rights are being violated.
- Is volunteer tourism a good thing?
- You say that it's better to buy experiences over things, so buying a trip like this for my child is a good idea?
- Do you have any advice on how to choose the right organization if I want to volunteer abroad?
I haven't felt comfortable answering them. However, today is the day that I will answer them all. The short answer is: No, volunteer tourism is not a good thing and if the trip involves children, you should not do it. It's much better to donate the money you will spend on the trip to an organisation working with human rights. I will explain why. If you want to read more about this subject, there is a lot of information online. You can check the references that I will list below.
Wanting to help people in need is a natural and admirable reaction, when witnessing injustices. One way a lot of people try to do this is by going abroad as a volunteer. I don't say that all volunteer trips are bad, but trips involving volunteer tourists and children shouldn't be encouraged. The reason for this is primarily that children have more extensive rights than adults, because they aren't old enough to protect themselves in the same way as adults can. Therefore, it's important that we care about their rights when organisations try to make money out of them.
Volunteer trips involving children are the most popular volunteer projects. Partly because volunteers want to help what they believe are children in need. However, the issues with volunteer tourism involving children are many; corruption, paedophilia, attachment disorders and such. Volunteer tourism where you visit orphanages is always a bad idea. Children in orphanages are pressured into emotional work; they are expected to perform in a specific way to please the volunteer tourists. Something to think about regarding orphanages is that the children aren't always real orphans. Thousands of children are taken from their families, to act as orphans in these orphanages. Organisations capitalize on tourists who want to 'do good' by donating money to organisations which in fact don't do anything good. The children in the orphanages aren't taken care of in an adequate way and are at high risk of abuse, suicide and prostitution. By visiting orphanages and supporting that kind of business, you also support organisations using children to make money, hurting the children while they do it.
Children in the global South have the same rights as children at home. They shouldn't be exploited by tourists seeing them as an attraction, taking pictures of the children and post them on social media so that their friends and family can see 'all the good that they're doing'. Taking photots of the children that people think thay're helping is wrong in so many ways. I've worked as a tutor in Sweden and there were strict rules regarding taking photos of the children we worked with. In Sweden, this is seen as something normal; you don't take photos of the children you work with and post in on social media without their parents approval. All children should be respected in this way, don't you think?
I could go on and on about this subject, but I think I will stop here. I will end this post with a few questions to ask yourself if you are considering going abroad as a volunteer tourist:
- Do you really need to go overseas to volunteer? There are usually a big need for volunteers at home, so that could be a better idea than going abroad?
- Why do you want to volunteer? It is because you think it will look good on your resume? To make yourself look good? Or that you actually want to do good? If you actually want to do good, you can donate the money to an organisation with educated and trained staff who will do an excellent work.
- Are you qualified to do the work? If you aren't qualified to do the same work at home, you should probably not do it overseas either. The children there deserve the same respect as the children at home. They aren't a tourist attraction for you to brage about on social media.
If you’ve been abroad as a volunteer, don’t feel too bad. It’s not easy to know about the consequences, I sure didn’t before studying human rights and working at an NGO.
If you speak Swedish, here is a short documentary from UR about volunteer tourism and child rights.
Bandyopadhyay, Ranjan & Patil, Vrushali, "'The white woman's burden' - the racialized, gendered politics of volunteer tourism", Tourism Geographies, 2017.
Guiney, Tess, ""Hug-an-orphan vacations": "Love" and emotion in orphanage tourism", The Geographical Journal, 2018.
Kontogeorgopoulus, Nick, "Finding oneself while discovering others: An existential perspective on volunteer tourism i Thailand", Annals of Tourism Research, 2017.
Mostafanezhad, Mary, "'Getting in touch with your Inner Angelina': celebrity humanitarianism and the cultural politics of gendered generosity in volunteer tourism", Third World Quarterly, 2013.
Save the Children Australia: