What's wrong with volunteer travel?

Added: 05-22-2018

In this 10 minute TEDx Talk, Daniela Papi uses her personal experience as a volunteer to explain how volunteering out of sympathy can create more problems than it solves. Yet, if volunteers seek to empathize and learn about the population they are visiting, this will lead to more sustainable and meaningful social development.

poverty voluntourism savior complex non-governmental organizations (NGO) schools Education empathy tourism foremost Cambodia orphanage overload responsibility volunteerism TED development

Type Reading Time Author Date Source
video 10 minutes DANIELA PAPI 08-15-2012 https://www.youtube.com/
Type Reading Time
video 10 minutes
Author Date
daniela papi 2018-05-22 00:00:00 UTC
Key Takeaways
  • Sympathy volunteering must be replaced with empathy volunteering. 
  • Education tourism will benefit development more than actionable volunteering projects. 
  • We should hold volunteer development work to the same standards as other professions, and not expect beginners to lead projects or train others. 
  • Do not overly congratulate, instead be wary of volunteer tourism projects.


Daniela Papi draws on her personal experience to explain why volunteer tourism is not the solution to poverty and what can be done to change it. She explains that she started in development by volunteering in Cambodia, where she founded an NGO to build schools. Eventually she learned that school buildings (and infrastructure in general) do not teach kids, teachers do. So without employing or training teachers, the schools were useless. 

From this experience, she realized what she was encouraged to do from the volunteer community often had reverse consequences - for example: giving away shoes or buying items from street kids could ruin local markets or keep people in poverty. 

In orphanage tourism, sometimes as much as a quarter of children in orphanages are not actually orphans, but have been placed there by a guardian to make money. This is perpetuated by volunteers desire to do good.  

Furthermore, Papi argues that volunteers drop out of development because they experience:

  • Poverty overload 
  • Satisfaction with their ‘savior’ contributions 
  • Failure to achieve tangible gains soon enough 
She argues volunteers must learn before helping others. Papi reminds the audience that we do not expect beginners in other fields to lead projects or train others. Yet, in development we give volunteers responsibilities they often have not been trained in themselves. 

Instead of serving others, she suggests learning how to serve first. Instead of applying sympathy, try empathizing and understanding the receiving community first. If we reward education tourism as much as volunteer tourism (e.g. not overly congratulating or compensating volunteers), we will encourage more understanding, and will ultimately see more positive social development in the long run.