Confessions of a voluntourist – great article!

Here is an interesting article in the magazine New Internationalist (they also have an excellent website with many freely available articles on povery and global justice and are based in my very own Oxford!).

Michelle Dobrovolny writes about her own experience volunteering in a school for orphans in Kenya. I particularly like this article as it presents the realities of volunteering in a developing country in a balanced way. Michelle talks insightfully about her placement with an unamed voluntourism agency and the expectations and hopes compared to the disappointment of how little can be realistically achieved in these kind of projects.

“Like myself, most of the voluntourists did have a sincere desire to ‘build a better world’, as is often promised in the advertising of the hundreds of voluntourism agencies found online. But often our good intentions were lost within a market system that shifted the focus on to the paying voluntourists rather than the community.”

She talks about how there was little thought going into how the voluntourists could be utilised at the school and how the voluntourists dictated their work environment, choosing their own hours, taking excursions when they wanted to and wearing casual clothing in contrast to Kenyan staff who work specific hours and are professionally dressed.

What makes this article so effective is that after describing her impressions of the role of the voluntourists in the school, Michelle then presents the benefits of the presence of volunteers to communities as a source of funding. This is something that is often overlooked in media about voluntourism or seen as a negative. By hosting a volunteer, an organisation is benefiting both from an extra pair of hands but also from the fee that the volunteer brings. They may also continue to support the project when they return home. This transactional nature of voluntourism has been played down but actually can be sold as a positive thing.

The second point that Michelle makes about voluntourism relates to what the volunteer can gain from these kind of placement, in terms of learning about another culture and way of life. She highlights the way voluntourism companies use language around “making a difference” and “helping” poor people and how this leads to the volunteers going into completely different cultures and trying to change things without fully understanding the local situation. Michelle argues that our expectations of voluntourism should be revised and the organisations should highlight the learning experience and the opportunity to critically reflect on our own lifestyles.

Here is one final quote from this article which really expresses the fundamental conflict within the voluntourism industry:

“The glaring hypocrisy of an industry that sells the experience of helping others while fulfilling primarily self-serving interests has made voluntourism easy fodder for criticism.”


About natashastein

I'm interested in travel, learning about other countries and cultures, responsible tourism, environmental issues and wildlife. I like being outdoors and beautiful scenery can really move me and reinvigorate me. I enjoy walking and am planning to get a rescue dog to keep me company on my strolls. I also love to write stuff. I've set up my own website (, written blogs on topics I'm interested in and written various articles about volunteering overseas. I've always enjoyed writing in my previous jobs. I'm a bit of a creative all rounder - I can draw and make things. It's something I'd like to do more of! I love art and photography and go to exhibitions when I can. I am currently teaching English as a second language in Worcestershire, where I live. I have an eclectic career story. My professional background is in travel and tourism and the charity sector. I have worked for a major holiday company, specialist tour operator and coordinated a University alumni travel programme. Most recently I've worked for a Destination Management Organisation and local government tourism department focusing on promoting the Cotswolds primarily via social media. I also worked for VSO, the international development volunteering charity for 6 years as a Volunteer and Placement Adviser and have done bits and bobs of volunteering with different charities.
This entry was posted in Volunteer Tourism in the news and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s