Voluntourism Today: Selfish or Selfless?

A while back, someone asked me how I would describe my 6 week volunteering experience in Thailand. The first thing that popped into my mind was selfish, but instead, my lips murmured, “challenging and rewarding,” the same two things I always say when asked that question. The rest of the conversation was me nodding to everything my friend was saying while trying to figure out why the first thing that my brain associated with the Thailand affair was selfishness. After all, it was a noble thing I did – leaving the comfort of my home, flying over 7500 km just to teach these poor Thai kids the marvels of the English language. Rather selfless on my side. Right?

Not right.

This social phenomenon, generically called voluntourism or travel philanthropy, is quickly becoming a norm given that more and more people, especially youngsters in their twenties, opt for this kind of vacation.  It has its perks and they aren’t easy to overlook. So if you are young, you have the money and the means – why not go to Kenya, Malaysia or Haiti to build a house or to teach some less fortunate child a language that is not even your own?  It will look great on your CV; it will give you a chance to see a new country and explore a new culture; it will bring exciting people in your way, and more importantly, it will fulfil the burning desire you feel inside your chest fueled by all those inspirational Tumblr quotes: You can change the world! Make the world a better place!

For the majority of people who engage in voluntourism, the ones mentioned above are the actual and only reasons for choosing to spend time in poorer countries doing some kind of philanthropic work. While these reasons are legitimate and, essentially, good enough to fuel a volunteering project abroad, having no other drive but satisfying the needs of the self is a rather selfish approach to a matter that should supposedly to be one the most selfless endeavors one’ll experience in one’s lifetime.  Albeit the intentions behind are noble, the self-serving approach some take to voluntourism can make it harmful.

Going in for a short period of time doesn’t allow an individual to properly get to know the community and their needs, and more importantly, adjust to them or comply with them. In some cases this can prove to be detrimental. One unfortunately common scenario deals with volunteers who work with little kids, orphans or people with disabilities. While the intentions might be indeed noble, research shows the aftermath can be rather unpleasant and sad for the children. Research shows that orphans need to form longer and more stable connections with people, and a volunteer, who is only present for a few weeks, is not exactly the definition of stability. [1]

I didn’t believe it was such a serious matter until it happened to me firsthand. In my school in Thailand, I had this kid in 6th grade, Aye. With no parents in the picture, his aunt was his only relative he had in Tamafaiwan.  He was so poor he couldn’t afford a new uniform and the one he had was more a worn out collection of pieces stitched together than a unit of clothing. He used to call me Teacher Big Eye, since Gianina was too hard for him to pronounce and I was the person with the biggest eyes he’d ever seen. Every day, he would pick a fruit and bring it to me: he would shyly knock on the door to the teacher’s room and hand me a baby banana, a dragon fruit or some freshly picked mangosteen. After class, every day without fail he would come to my desk, and with a slight bow he’d tell me, “Thank you, teacher Big Eye.” The day I left Thailand he didn’t show up to say goodbye – to him, my leaving felt like an abandonment. Aye had no phone, no internet, there was no way to stay in touch. All he was left with was yet another person in his life who ended up leaving.

When it comes to being voluntourism, people tend to choose a job they desire and not a job they have the proper skill set for the job. It is not uncommon for volunteers to be improperly (if at all) trained for the task. Aside from being selfish, it can prove to be harmful to the community. Building houses is not something one learns off YouTube, just as teaching is not something one wakes up one morning and decides he’s good at. When people’s lives are at stake, their livelihood and education hanging on one application form, one should really think through his qualifications before submitting the application.

Perhaps had I been trained in how to deal with orphans, my experience with Aye would have been entirely different. The frail heart of the child was broken by my lack of qualifications.

There is another reason why people engage in this voluntourism: in order for others to see. That’s a big part of the reasons volunteers post numerous photos, use hashtags (such as #instagrammingafrica, #getback), give their audiences constant status updates on Facebook and Instagram and so on. Regardless of whether they do it as a means to show off or because they seek approval, using their volunteering experience in a poor country as a social media content boost is, by definition, selfishness.  It makes you think if the poem by Nayyirah Waheed titled ‘A Question of Appropriation’ stands a bit more ground than we’d like to admit.

you still want to travel to
you could not take a camera with you.”

Another issue that could arise out of the ceaseless documentation of the trip is reinforcement of stereotypes and prejudices regarding a country or a people. Maybe even unknowingly, but every hashtag like #giveback, #saveafrica, #changingtheworld etc., and every photograph depicting the individual as a saviour in the midst of a group of hungry children leads to the conceptualisation of the ‘other’ as well as the rationalisation of poverty. The concept of otherness is central to the very construction of identity. In the words of Zygmunt Bauman: Woman is the other of man, animal is the other of human, stranger is the other of native, abnormality the other of norm, deviation the other of law-abiding, illness the other of health, insanity the other of reason, lay public the other of the expert, foreigner the other of state subject, enemy the other of friend.” However, when (and this happens a bit too often with voluntourism) the ‘other’ is regarded as the helpless, the impoverished, the desperate and the hopeless in a context in which the volunteer is portrayed as the saviour, hero or guardian angel, it leads to an unfortunate paradox that merely buttresses the foundation of human/country inequality.

One should not feed his ego and fuel his Saviour complex to the detriment of other people nor should one’s actions lead to the suffering of others, either directly or indirectly, momentarily or in time.

Regarding the rationalization of poverty, extensive research has already studied the effects of humanitarian aids given as charity to developing countries. Some scholars argue that “the aid given to these countries is making them detrimentally dependent upon the charity of autonomous benefactors.”[2] Continuously expecting help from richer countries creates an environment of self-accepted poverty which interferes with any country’s potential development. And the rationalization of poverty does not limit itself to money. Therefore, volunteers unceasingly coming to aid poorer countries, sometimes consciously or subconsciously find themselves participating in the rationalization of one country’s lower status, inferior position and enduring poverty.

I’m not saying voluntourism is inherently evil. It isn’t. There are definitely those people whose actions speak louder than words, who in four weeks can do more than others in four months. There, most certainly, are people who go abroad with the purest of intentions to actually help. This is the type of volunteer traveller one must strive to be.

But in order to be one of them, one must analyse very closely one’s behaviour, one’s intentions and one’s motives. Only if the three align in accordance to personal values and ethical standards should one then decide to pursue the opportunity. One must take the volunteering project seriously by showing up prepared and choosing a task he or she is qualified for. Volunteers must do thorough research and choose the best suitable and ethical organization to entrust with the managing of his or her volunteering experience.

Only after having checked all of the above should you go: only if there’s a burning will within you to help others while helping yourself; only if you’ve got a flaming desire to embrace other cultures while sharing your own; only if you’re consumed by an incessant sense of responsibility regarding the fact that your actions will create a ripple effect in the host community. Go to see, to know, to explore, to embrace, to learn and to teach – but only if your heart is in the right place and selflessness is what drives you. Selfishness has nothing to do in matters of humanity.

Gianina Vulpe


[1] CARLSON, ELIZABETH A., SAMPSON, MEGAN C., SROUFE, L. ALAN. Implications of Attachment Theory and Research for Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. October, 2003. Volume 24. Issue 5. pp 364-379.

[2] Shaun Franco. The Effects of Poverty: Ignorance. The Borgen Project.




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