Voluntourism Part 5: The economics of voluntourism

Voluntourism Part 5: The economics of voluntourism

Like most opportunities in the world, voluntourism does involve money. Today’s post explores some of the effects money has on the participants and on the communities/receivers. Heads up – it’s a long one! 🙂


Firstly the participants…

In post 4 of this series (link below), I briefly mentioned how pictures of our friends volunteering abroad on social media is a self-made marketing tool for voluntourism. But attraction to these programs is not just by word of mouth – there is indeed a marketing industry behind voluntourism now. As with all travel, somebody has to pay – usually the participant. And the travel companies, or the voluntourist companies, are competing for the money. The large volume of willing participants increases the market space and competition.

Unfortunately, one of the consequences I’ve researched is the commoditisation of a voluntourism program. In other words, the participant becomes the customer, browsing for the best deal – which program will offer the MOST help to the community, or the MOST “off the beaten track” experience, or the MOST sightseeing, or the BEST instagram pictures – and maybe even at the biggest DISCOUNT…sad but in some cases true. The key issue here is that the volunteer feels that because they are paying for the trip, their needs and wants are the priority and they know what’s best for their experience. The focus has moved away from the needs of the community they may be helping.

On the other hand, I think personally paying for the experience to volunteer can be beneficial. For example, on some of the programs that I have experienced, there will be a mixture of people who got their in different ways. Some people’s parents paid for them, some people’s work or other sponsoring organisations paid for them, whereas others had to work hard and/or fundraise to personally pay for their experience. I have found that in many cases, the latter group takes more responsibility and ownership for the experience – they often genuinely have a strong passion not only for getting the most out of the trip, but contributing the most. That’s not to say those in the first groups don’t, but sometimes there can be a sense of complacency where they may take things for granted.


Onto the communities…

There is no doubt that voluntourism can do great things for a local economy. It brings in money for accommodation, site-seeing businesses, restaurants etc, let alone the positive projects that a voluntourism project may assist with, such as improving levels of education or employability skills, or even farming productivity….the list is endless.

However, there are some examples that highlight the need to also be cautious where money goes.

One particular example I have read (in a couple of resources) about is programs that were assisting orphanages in Cambodia. Some studies were done into the effectiveness of these programs and at one point, it demonstrated that in a particular period of time, the number of orphanages had grown, whilst the number of actual orphans (children with no parents/guardians) had declined – why was this occurring?

Unfortunately part of the reason was corruption. Some opportunistic orphanage coordinators saw the money that was pouring in from western countries and their voluntourism programs and worked out a way to keep the money coming. For example, sometimes they would simply allow their buildings to become derelict in order to keep attracting money. Or they may coordinate with multiple charities – without one knowing about the other – to keep more money coming in. Of course the saddest part was that the orphans became pawns in this process.

The good thing was that after the research, there was a strong push to turn the tide. Many families had put children in the orphanages, even though they could care for them, because of the money that was coming into them. But there was then a big push to educate communities that really, the best place for a child to grow up was in a family and a caring community.

Another example I read about was in Africa, where many people didn’t aim to buy health insurance, because foreign aid was providing it for free. These are all examples of where bringing in resources, whether money, medicine, or even building materials etc, does not end up supporting the local economy. In some cases it would be much better to buy local materials and source and employ locals to do the jobs, as a way of empowering the communities and growing the economy.

Well, economics is certainly not my forte, and I am sure there are other considerations I have missed. But it is worth thinking about where our resources and money are going and what impact it will have on ourselves as possible voluntourists, and what impact it may have on the communities; both the positive and possible negative impacts.

Money is an amoral thing – it can be used positively or negatively – just be intentional about how it used in voluntourist programs (and avoid corruption wherever possible 🙂 )

Previous posts in the Voluntourism Series:
Voluntourism Part 4b: As I was saying…
Voluntourism Part 4: “Us” vs. “Them”
Voluntourism Part 3: Who benefits?
Voluntourism Part 2: Who? Why?
Voluntourism Part 1: What is it?


Scroll to Top