By Dr. Lavinia Allary, Ph.D.
Click here for the article in its published format on
The Fulcrum, “How Not to Be a Voluntourist”.
The Fulcrum is the independent English-language
student newspaper at the University of Ottawa.
I like to travel and discover new places and new cultures. I also like to do volunteer work whenever it’s possible. Just like many other people, I dream of a better world. But after so many years of doing all this, I finally got to understand that something was really problematic. I’ve fallen into the trap of “voluntourism”. The aim of this article is to raise awareness about the negative impact of voluntourism in the field, and it is intended for an audience of volunteers and researchers who work with vulnerable communities.
I spent three months this summer  in Thailand and worked, or more precisely, thinking I was working, not for one, but for two NGOs. My experience was very enriching for me, I got to better understand social and political issues in the region, I got to make new friends, better understand the Thai culture, got introduced to the exquisite Thai culinary art, did some nice projects with children and for children, and I got to visit very beautiful places. I experienced all these things. I did. The kids I worked with and worked for? I don’t know.
To be sincere to you and to myself, I am not sure my presence made any difference. Spending a week in the field with a deeply involved project manager, who only had harsh words for me – so I thought at the moment – was a wake-up call. My voluntourism experience that week turned out to be a descent into the hell’s flames for my Ego.
I have heard multiple times three words from NGO staff: “Do no harm”. But it took me three months to realize their meaning. Why on earth would I do harm? Why would people doubt my real and sincere intentions to help them?
This deeply involved project manager helped me answer these questions and even more, at the end of this experience. “Why are you here? Are you like them? Just look around this little city here. There are more white western female volunteers and paid humanitarians than locals and beneficiaries altogether. We have an army of humanitarians here. Did you come to join this army? Fine, you will spend your week with me, if that’s what you want, even if I don’t trust you or think you’ll be of any help here. A week… you need to spend a full year before you get to understand what on earth is going on here, lady! It takes years of hard work and commitment to really make a difference in somebody’s life, so don’t start already to feel good about yourself thinking you’ll do something good here!…”
And with the next occasion he continued his tirade: “…So you say you have a PhD in Human Rights and International Relations? Oh! You came down here to do research on us, publish your books and go to conferences pretending you’re an expert… We’ve seen these academics, journalists and photographers around here, but we’ve never seen some of the money they make selling their books being put back into our projects… Look, I have medical emergencies here every day, I carry dead babies in my own truck, but I have no money to buy better god dammed equipment! Nobody really cares!…”
Behind these words there was a cruel truth for my ego: this man was so right. Asking for some guidance back home from a friend who also works in international development, he just laughed at me:
“Sure he’s right! And you were lucky he accepted you there. In my case, I’ve never accepted volunteers in my field projects. They just mess up the place and the people. They go there with their cameras, take pictures of hungry people and naked kids, and the next day they’re gone to their next destination, probably to the beach so they can forget how emotionally hard the previous day was. You know, those communities are not a zoo!”
What started like a tremor turned into an earthquake that week. I was deeply shaken in my beliefs, my intentions, and especially in my ego. And my mentor just kept pouring at me his frustration with us.
“You know, people who come here are not bad people. I will never say that. But they have a problem they should do well to address. They fantasize in their innocence about helping others when in fact they avoid dealing with their own problems back home. They fantasize of saving the world like Christ or like Superman and they come here looking for a meaning to their own lives. Looking for self-esteem and looking for love. It’s all about their own needs and not about the people here. They come here to take not to give. And when they finish taking, they leave. This is why we don’t welcome volunteers and paid humanitarians altogether. This is why communities don’t trust them and don’t care about their intentions to help. And young people are the worst. They just come here for parties and drugs. You see that note over there on the door of our respectable doctor?” And he pointed towards a disturbing message written in a medium level English on the door: “Sorry, white people are not welcome here.” “It’s not racism,” he said, “It’s a way for this doctor to say that he doesn’t want to sell drugs to the volunteers who come here.”
It’s not just that I was feeling terribly useless despite my strong educational background and work experience, I was also starting to feel ashamed. Ashamed to be associated with these young foreigners, ashamed to be white, ashamed to be a volunteer. Nothing prepared me back home for this difficult moment.
Back home we are encouraged to go overseas and do volunteer work as much as possible. It’s good for your CV, it’s good for your career, it’s good for your life experience. There is something very wrong and very disturbing with the idea of some parents today encouraging their children to leave their comfortable life and get “exposed” to poverty and poor people in the world so that they could come back home alcohol-free, wiser and with some clearer idea of what they want to do in life!…
We don’t know back home that they know all about this in the field. They know it all because they are poor but not stupid. They won’t tell you what’s in their mind like my angry mentor did, but they will avoid getting into a real encounter with you, from heart to heart. They will let themselves be photographed, they will smile for you, they will be nice and polite for you, they will let you play and teach English to their children. They will accept the circus we make of them. But we will never get to know what they really have in their heart. And without knowing them and knowing their needs, there is no way we can help them.
These people have been harmed by volunteers and other humanitarian dreamers. Children have been heartbroken when their white friend left and never brought them to America. Community projects have been cancelled when volunteers had to leave back home. Mothers have been left to deal alone with their financial problems and broken dreams when donors pulled out their funding for their children. Information retrieved from community members got distorted by the media and created a negative impact on people and harmed their relations with local authorities. Academics have used communities as a pool of information for their own papers and never have given back the credit for their ideas to those communities. All kinds of researchers have showed up pretending to help just so they could get access to communities and better research complex social issues, hoping to publish something that will bring them fame and money.
Do no harm. Now I understand the meaning of this three-word message I received in Thailand during my voluntourism experience. I am writing this article for a public audience, not just to share my own experience, but also as an awareness message. Our volunteer humanitarian impulse can do a lot of harm to the people we think we help. Please do your research, address your own personal needs and get some good training before you engage in a humanitarian experience abroad.
Make up your mind before you leave if you’re doing this for yourself or for the others. Make up your mind before you leave if you want to do tourism, have fun, have a nice CV, and a nice Facebook page, or do some real and sincere volunteer work, without the fuss, the social media exposure or your publication plans in the background. But don’t do both. You will harm not just communities but you will also harm the image and the credibility we have abroad. There are already enough insecure places for western white people in the world. Do not create new ones. Be the change.
Project managers will understand that sometimes volunteers are young and inexperienced. They will encourage young volunteers in getting the exposure they need to help them find their own answers and career path in life. But they are also expecting you to be fully engaged with the project. Be ethical in your work, professional in your attitude, responsible for your own actions, respectful with the people you will meet overseas, open to their needs and ideas and don’t judge the culture that will receive you. Just don’t do voluntourism.
 People and places are not named in this paper in order to protect communities and field projects. Dialogues are not accurately reproduced but reconstructed based on real conversations. I assume the sole responsibility for the content of these dialogues.
Lavinia Allary holds a PhD in Political Science with the specialization in International Relations from the University of Ottawa, Canada. Her research interests are migration, human rights, migrants’ labour rights, slavery, child labour and corporate social responsibility. Working with different NGOs and UN agencies, she has gained an extensive understanding of these issues in Europe, North America and South-Eastern Asia. Also holding a License in Law, she hopes in the near future to serve the migrants’ cause not just as a researcher and policy analyst, but also as a human rights lawyer. She recently published her first book, “Less Than a Human: The Politics of Legal Protection of Migrants with Irregular Status“.