The Reality of Voluntourism and the Conversations We're Not Having

Added: 05-01-2018

This article by Natalie Jesionka offers her thoughts on how and why voluntourism can have a harmful impact in the world. She draws on past personal experience in this article to highlight five major issues that revolve around money, attitude of volunteers and the uncertainty of the social good industry. She concludes that all volunteers should be mindful of their impact and critically consider who and where they will impact before embarking on volunteer trips.

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Type Reading Time Author Date Source
article 10 minutes NATALIE JESIONKA 01-01-2016
Type Reading Time
article 10 minutes
Author Date
natalie jesionka 2018-05-01 00:00:00 UTC
Key Takeaways
  • Voluntourism is not just a problem with western do-gooders. 
  • The system of using volunteers is justified by the cheap labor even when the volunteers are unexperienced and not qualified. 
  • Misconceptions can be changed in individuals by redesigning the way volunteers view the worth of development project.


This article, by Natalie Jesionka, reviews several major under addressed issues within the voluntourism sector. Voluntourism, as explained by Jesionka, is the act of volunteers traveling to foreign countries for short volunteer trips and pairing their work-related commitments with leisure travel. 

Many articles have been written in recent years about the massive and systemic problems that voluntourism perpetuates. In this piece, Jesionka digs deeper into why these issues persist and what issues are overlooked. The article is broken down into the following sub-headings: 

It’s Not Just a Western Problem
Jesionka points out that voluntourism is not an issue confined just to western idealists. She cites the ineffectiveness of English learning camps in Thailand and the unsuccessful accounting of aid projects in China. Though western volunteers may contribute to these causes, a large part of the issue with development work can be traced to the outlook and execution of people from other regions, making this a global issue - not just a western one. 

It’s About the Money
For many organizations, volunteer programs are justified because they receive free labor. Even when programs are poorly run or are not very productive they are kept alive because they are conveniently cheap. 

Even the Best Planned Projects Don’t Always Work Out
The complex problems of development are often advertised as having simple solutions by volunteer organizations. Many projects experience unplanned obstacles and sometimes cannot deliver on promises to the target population. According to Jesionka, many volunteers are not prepared for this and enter with an assumption that good intentions will solve the problem at hand. 

One Experience is Not More “Authentic” Than Another
Another common problem according to Jesionka is a feeling that some volunteer experiences are superior to others. That is, those that require more hardship or target more impoverished groups are more valuable. This paradigm has been a subtle, but can negatively lead volunteers to focus on one project and negative perceptions of other volunteers and projects. 

The Industry Needs to Change, Not Just Individuals
As with many systemic problems, no one volunteer changing course will make difference. Jesionka argues that as long as volunteers continue to travel, the system must learn to harness the power of inexperienced workers by better preparing them. She also advises potential volunteers to consider all aspects of a project before investing time and energy - especially her own checklist of “questions for anyone considering work in social good”.