Volunteer Tourism: Think Before You Volunteer

By Jody Hanson

Volunteer Tourism

The trouble with pop-in volunteering

“The hardest part of running the CHOICE project is working with volunteers,” sighs Ross Wright, a 69 year-old Australian who has been donating his time six days a week since 2006 to work with three villages outside of Phnom Penh. “The problem is that they fall off the plane and two days later they are experts about everything Cambodian. They just don’t get it that things have to be shared fairly to avoid jealousy. So they show up with 10 books and there are 40 kids. Or they bring bags of lollies and just start handing them out. Worse, they give gifts to some of the local staff, but not others. Maddening. One wanted to teach the kids manners – to say “please” and “thank-you.” The reality is that the people we work with are squatters living a subsistence life.”

Austrailian Alexandra Hammer couldn’t agree more. “Aid workers need to be highly educated people who have the knowledge and the expertise in their relevant fields. Volunteer tourists – although often well meaning – end up causing more negatives than positives in terms of development. If you want to volunteer your time, be a professional, utilize your skills/ qualifications, research the organization you want to assist, and spend a minimum of three months in the field. Be open to the culture and don’t put your foreign standards on the organization – they are smarter than you because they understand the context. You are the foreigner.”

The how-to’s of volunteering

Pop-in volunteering causes far more problems than it solves. Think about it. How would you feel if seven people from Japan, six from Argentina, and three from Morocco showed up at your workplace to help you better manage your organization/business/corporation?  What do you do with them? How can they help? Frankly, unless they have specific skills you need, they can’t.

Volunteering is often a way to extract money from tourists who want to ease their occidental guilt. People then return to their own countries to impress kith and kin with stories of how they “helped” the developing world. Frankly, they didn’t.

Start with a skills assessment.

What do you bring to the plate? Are you a teacher who can teach the teachers? Rather than teaching the kids – and taking away a job from a local – work with the teachers. If not, don’t bother. There are already more kids than necessary chanting their ABCs to impress people with white faces who will donate money.

Doctor? Nurse? Dentist? You may be useful. Just be prepared to do it with minimal equipment. The medical situation in the developing world can get pretty down and dirty so you have to be prepared for it.

CEO, executive or lawyer? Other than giving money to an organization you are useless. So suck it up and let go of the illusion that you are making any sort of contribution.

Do as you are told.

To reiterate what Alex said, leave your creative ideas about how to save the developing world at the hotel. The people on the ground know how to assess the situation and have reasons for doing what they do. Learn from them.

As Ross notes, “People who come up with ideas about how things should be done can stuff up the entire operation. When people come out to the villages with CHOICE they can help with the water run or kick a ball around with some of the kids after lunch. But we don’t want them organizing social events or giving people money.”

Sex tourists of the world move over. You have to share the “get rid of them” limelight with the volunteer tourists.

About the Author:
Jody Hanson is an insufferable travel junkie who currently lives in Cambodia. To date she has visited 107 countries, lived in eight and holds passports in three. Her – some would say irresponsible – retirement plan is to keep going until she drops. At that time she wants a Muslim burial: wash the body, wrap it in a white sheet and plant it by sundown. In the meantime, Hanson continues to have more than her share of adventures and misadventures, both of which she embraces equally.

Contact Jody by email: jh@j-hanson.com
Blogs: Jody Hanson
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13 thoughts on “Volunteer Tourism: Think Before You Volunteer

  1. The Traveller (@daniel_baylis)

    Thanks for this post, Jody.

    You’d hit the nail on the head: “Volunteering is often a way to extract money from tourists who want to ease their occidental guilt.”

    I would even push your argument further to say that a full year of service is needed, if you want to see any actual impact.


    1. Jody Hanson

      Thanks for the comment, Daniel. A year is good as three months is about how long it takes to settle in — or at least that is my time frame and Cambodia is the 9th country I’ve lived in. The problem, however,is that most people can’t afford that much time away.

  2. Alan

    I would think that most” pop in tourists” as you call them really do genuinely want to help in any way they can , so I would have thought it would be the responsibility of the Charity workers themselves to inform these short term visitors as to the correct way to behave .

    I really don’t think you guys have done yourself any favours with this article.
    @Alexandra “Aid workers need to be highly educated people” Why ?

    In short you’ll take the money from these well meaning pop in tourists but really see them as an inconvenience.?

    1. Jody Hanson

      Thanks for the comment, Daniel. A year is good as three months is about how long it takes to settle in — or at least that is my time frame and Cambodia is the 9th country I’ve lived in. The problem, however,is that most people can’t afford that much time away.

    2. Jody Hanson

      Oops, got the reply buttons mixed up. Yes, I agree that people want to help. But to be useful volunteers need to have the right skill sets.There is no point in me volunteering to help in an operating theatre, for example, as I would be a liability, rather than an asset.

  3. Krystina Marie Price

    Thanks for sharing this and the article on orphanages. I took a “gambling” excursion bus from Bangkok to Siam Reap for a weekend getaway. We booked a local tour operator, who made arrangements for a car to pick us up at the border. After a day on the “Lake” following dinner, we were dropped off for a massage, which immediately gave me the creeps,as it was filled with female children “learning” the trade. He insisted that tourists, “just love it.” It was a perfect setting for pedophiles. I wasn’t welcome into the children’s hospitals. It was soon apparent the parents were not allowed inside either. I happened to have breakfast with a dentist, who was volunteering for three months. She was there with her mother. I contributed in dollars where ever I could, and thought the best way to help was to spread the word about education. Someone I know organized a bike trip across Cambodia, which not only brought awareness to the situation in Cambodia, it brought in a lot of money.

    I’ve been told not to travel to Ethiopia without at least plenty of pencils for the children, because they might not ever seen another. My trip to Cuba will include medical supplies. Wish someone had a list of things to bring, as well as things not to do.
    I would like to link to your site from mine… Cheers!

    1. Jody Hanson

      Hi Krystina,

      Love to link sites — but I don’t know how to do it. Perhaps Google can help.

      You are so right about education being the key, which is why we started Educate a Girl; Change the World — http://j-hanson.com/educate-a-girl-change-the-world/

      I’ve found that with giving things there has to be enough to go around or it causes problems. Or to have a contact person on the ground. There is no way I could do the work I’m doing at the garbage dump without Vichika and Nick the translator.

      Not much help about what to take as I was in Cuba in 1978 when it was still being supported by the USSR and Ethiopia in 1993 and everyone needed everything as the war was raging.

      Happy travels. J

  4. Ross

    Alan you’ve missed the point most “pop in tourists” do not follow the rules or listen to charity workers, believe me I have been living here and doing charity work here for many years. Volunteerism is becoming a real problem in Cambodia, many visitors are just volunteering to put it on their CV, or tick a box or simply play with children. If you have been to Cambodia you will have seen the Tuk Tuk signs reading “Don’t make Cambodia a destination to exploit children” or “Don’t put our children in a glass box” We are NOT talking about serious volunteers that really care for the children. Creating awareness is the only way to educate these “pop ins” as their numbers are exploding and thus more children are being exploited, especially in the Orphanages.

  5. Sarah

    I enjoyed the discussion started in this post. It’s difficult to balance good intentions and what people actually need. Can you comment on how this or other projects integrate with the local community. How would a volunteer know whether a project is helpful for the local community? What criteria should they use to evaluate a project?

  6. Sarah

    Thanks for this insider’s view about ‘pop-in’ volunteers. If someone were interested in helping, what else would you recommend besides following the rules? Are there styles of travel or places where a short visit from a volunteer would be helpful? Many of us are concerned about helping others but only get vacation time in one or two week increments. Do you feel it would be better with such short periords of time to provide financial assistance instead of hands-on assistance?

  7. Pingback: Dos and Don'ts in Cambodia

  8. Mo Zaki

    Hi Jody, Thanks for sharing such an informative post to share the thoughts about “Volunteer Tourism”. May God Bless You! and Happy Journey for your all coming up trip.. Thank, Mo

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