Voluntourism: Seven things to know before you volunteer overseas

It's understandable that you, as a traveller, would see problems in the world and want to lend a hand. You witness some pretty disturbing things when you travel – poverty and isolation and tragedy that you just wish you could fix. And that's an admirable thing.

However, there is a problem. You might have the best of intentions, but your help in developing countries is not always needed. The things you know how do are not always helpful, and not always productive. Just because you're volunteering your time overseas, doesn't mean you're participating in anything more than a vanity exercise.

Would you put your hand up to do that same job back in Australia? If not, then what makes you think you can do it overseas?

If you fancy the idea of "voluntourism", of giving back to the world by teaching kids, or building schools, or caring for animals, or any other volunteer work overseas, that's great – but there are certain things you need to ask yourself before you commit.

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Do I actually possess a skill that's required?

Do you know anything about building a school, or constructing a house? Do you have any experience as a teacher? Have you ever cared for children before? Or animals? Or anything else? If the answer to questions like these is "no", then you have to think pretty carefully about what you're bringing to this community you're trying to help, and whether it will actually have long-term benefits.

Are there local people who are better qualified to do this?

What NGOs and other development organisations around the world are attempting to achieve in struggling communities is long-term change, solving problems by empowering locals to do it themselves. So ask yourself: how is my coming into this place and doing a job contributing to that? Could I actually be taking work away from local people who could just as easily be doing it?

Would I do this back home?


This is a good way to consider whether you're really qualified to take on a role in a developing country. Would you put your hand up to do that same job back in Australia? If not, then what makes you think you can do it overseas?

Where exactly is all my money going?

There are some great and honorable volunteer organisations out there that ensure the bulk of what you donate – in the form of paying to volunteer – goes towards the cause you're trying to support. However, not all organisations are created equal. Before you commit, ensure you do some thorough research to find out how your money will be spent, and whether the organisation you're committing too is reputable, and experienced.

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What are the long-term effects of the work I'm doing?

It might be a buzz for you to go into a school and play with the kids there for a few hours, or to work at an orphanage for a week or two and get to know everyone. However, what happens when you leave? What are the long-term effects for the kids of this constant flow of new faces who donate pencils, take a couple of photos and then leave? That's worth looking into.

Would I be happy to do this if no one else knew about it?

What if there was no such thing as Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter? What if none of your friends knew that you were off helping kids in Nepal, or building homes in Africa, or caring for animals in Costa Rica? Would you still be just as happy to do this? If the answer is yes, then that's great. But if, deep down, you know the answer is no, then there's something wrong here.

Would I be better off just donating money?

There's a certain amount of ego that goes into voluntourism. Yes, you're helping people, but you're also getting a personal buzz from it. You're getting your money's worth. However, maybe you'd be better off not being there. Maybe having people train you and watch over you is actually a waste of their time. What plenty of established charities around the world really need is not more bodies on the ground, but more funding. They already have the skills and the people – now they need cash. Maybe the best way for you to help is just to donate some money.

Have you ever done volunteer work overseas? Did you consider questions like these before you got into it? Post a comment below.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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