The Ethics of Volunteering and Voluntourism

We understand that these two words mean two different things and can be used interchangeably, we also understand that there is a number of justifications for one over the other with volunteering being long term and voluntourism being short term. Terms like sustainability and capacity building (among others) have been associated with volunteering while voluntourism has been considered to be of less value in the long run. We are not here to justify which term is better than the other or is of more value (this alone is problematic).

For whatever term you choose to go with as a volunteer or voluntourist, we affirm that you use an ethical approach to these much-needed trips that you consider of value. You are probably wondering what an ethics approach to volunteering/voluntourism is? An ethics approach to volunteering and voluntourism is one that stipulates that the best ethical action is one that protects the rights and dignity of those who are affected by the actions. It entails you as a gap year (even qualified) person of privilege to ask yourself a number of questions that will indeed keep you on track. Among these will be questions like; why are you making these volunteer/tour/mission trips? What are your intentions? Are they egoistic/self-serving, or do you simply want to take cool photos? Do you have the qualifications to solve the problems you’re eager to solve? Do you have these problems back home? Or you are simply interested in solving exotic problems? Is your solution to these problems long term and sustainable (handing out a pair of shoes and cleaning drainage tunnels is not long term), does it involve capacity building, does it engage the community? In other words, are you welcome?

Asking these kinds of questions and many more will help prevent a number of ethical issues and dilemmas that arise in these volunteer/tour/mission trips. It will help eliminate the oversimplification of problems you intend to solve as compared to your own at home (the reductionist method of solving problems never identifies the root cause). Using critical thinking and an ethics approach will prevent one from falling prey of the White Savior Industrial complex that has tainted much of the development aid work.

It will also dismantle the structures of development porn (aka poverty porn) that objectifies and exploits individuals, especially in the considered developing countries. It is as though there is a single kind of story that individuals who are making these trips are interested in selling elsewhere and this story can not be told using an ethical lens! As you make those trips we are asking you to keep in mind the cultural and contextual differences that you will encounter, leave room for criticism and be willing to learn.