‘Voluntourism’: The reality behind the Instagram photos


The summer holidays are every student’s dream – heralding an empty expanse of time with which to travel, work or volunteer. For many the ability to combine travel and volunteer work provides the perfect ‘hybrid summer’. We can all find ourselves with a tan and exotic Instagram feed to go with it. Such a summer has become incredibly popular under the umbrella of voluntourism. And it’s no surprise really.

But it’s not all ‘sun and games’ – the popular baggage label can be exploited by companies wanting to sell a vision of summer, all for a high price and a distilled experience of the real world. A world that manifests itself in real disadvantages lived in by those under the red line in peripheral regions of the world, poor education, inadequate public health and food scarcity to name a few.

This is not to say that volunteering overseas is a waste of time. It is an opportunity to share cultures and make friends from different backgrounds, whilst expanding skills and furthering cross-cultural relations. But perhaps it is not always the glowing venture it appears. As someone who is passionate about development and travel and who has volunteered abroad multiple times – for causes I have truly believed in –  even I have had my doubts.EDITED

Our motives may be to help communities across the world develop. But the question is: how? Too often, projects in switched off localities are poorly organised and this means that making a difference halfway across the world becomes difficult. Sure. You can
travel 3,000 miles and dedicate months of your life but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the right resources are waiting. Or the right quality or quantity. The utilities you need to carry out a task are hard to source. On top of this, the administration and communication of small NGO’s within the community is something which can be disappointing. Occasionally, the idealism of global charity work is in practice shrouded by red tape.

We have to remember that whilst volunteering overseas can be, and often is, a highly rewarding, positive and beneficial experience for both sides of the ocean, the volunteers and the communities, it can be taken over by travel corporations and the media – selling a mediocre and limited project in return for a line on a CV and a glowing tan. As prospective planners we cannot allow the corporate world to sell us a vision of summer. A vision that is too often saturated by false advertising which latches onto our desires of what our summer will be, playing in a field of competitive student holiday makers. It is true that the current culture amongst UK students appears to argue over ‘who had the best summer?’ And who used their time most wisely?

Such notions of how we spend our free time and money can make us ignorant to the issues that lie beneath the surface of our own country, community, and even street. If you are looking to make a difference and learn new skills you don’t have to travel across oceans and pay thousands of pounds. Perhaps you need look no further than outside your very own window. If we can’t acknowledge the poverty and disposessed people in our own country and communities then what are we really striving for?

Of course voluntourism can be a wonderful experience; setting up small scale, sustainable projects in switched off regions. But it is far from perfect and is often subject to exploitation. Exploitation that we must be wary of even if disguised under good intentions.12204972_878088755602553_1096030548_n

Therefore, if you are passionate about travelling, helping communities and learning new skills it is something I would thoroughly endorse. But if you truly want to make a difference it is no ‘magic bullet’ – neither should you expect it to be. Ultimately, we are living in a society where people are willing to cross continents, cough up thousands of pounds and dedicate months for a ‘good cause’. As if there are no worthy causes right under our eyeline. Maybe we need to readjust our definition of a ‘good cause’ and reexamine our attitudes to the poor and disadvantaged in our own neighbourhood.


One thought on “‘Voluntourism’: The reality behind the Instagram photos

  • Hello,

    I enjoyed your article and think it raises some interesting points which I am hoping to address in my dissertation on Voluntourism. I wanted to ask if the cover picture is from an education centre in Battambang, Cambodia, in which FutureSense Foundation runs volunteer programmes. I worked for FutureSense Foundation over the summer and am considering using my experience there as a case study in my dissertation.

    If you’ve had an experience volunteering with them particularly or with a similar organisation, I would love to connect with you for further discussion. My email address is bethany.madden31@gmail.com.

    Kind regards,


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