Volunteering And Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, And The Questions You Should Ask

If you are interested in volunteering internationally or going on voluntourism trip, what are the ethical considerations you should be aware of? Which questions can you ask to better ensure that your actions and any financial contribution are aligned with your values and expectations? That you don't end up doing unintended harm with your goal of helping or “doing good”?

That’s what this article aims to unpack. But first, a story.

As we rounded a busy Port-au-Prince street corner on our way to the southern coast of Haiti, I checked my messages and noticed a Tweet from one of our readers, a young woman:

@umarket I'm planning a trip to Haiti to help at an orphanage. Do you feel safe? Sort of worried. Would be nice to hear from someone there!

On all accounts I was in a position to respond, but I turned to Cyril, our Haitian guide, and asked: “What do you think?”

“I would advise her to be very careful, perhaps choose to do something else,” he said.

He wasn’t talking about her physical safety, though.

“Especially after the earthquake, many of these orphanages were set up just to make money from foreign volunteers. Traditionally in Haiti, we didn’t have orphanages. Once people realized they could make money from this, the orphanages began to appear. In some cases, the children there actually have parents.”

While we’d encountered and read of orphanage tourism before, especially in places like Uganda, Nepal and Cambodia, our conversation outside of Port-au-Prince lent currency and context to a sad reality: although we can set out to do good through service, contribution and volunteering, we can sometimes inadvertently do harm instead.

Cyril concluded, “There are plenty of good organizations in Haiti. And there are ways to volunteer that don’t involve orphanages. She should just be careful.”

Volunteering is a good thing, right? But will it really help the people you aim to serve? Should you still volunteer if your service might do harm? Are there questions you can ask before you go to figure it all out?

We didn’t wish to squelch this young woman’s urge to serve, to contribute, to engage, to give back. We support and celebrate such altruistic inclinations. However, circumstances — the socioeconomic landscape, unscrupulous agents, and even our own intentions — can conspire to inadvertently harm the people and communities volunteers set out to help.

This is why awareness of the possible unintended negative consequences…

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