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International Volunteerism: who benefits most?

International Volunteerism: who benefits most?

An article this week in the Times of Swaziland – “Corporal punishment to be phased out soon” – first filled me with encouragement regarding the progress Swaziland has made in its development issues in comparison to other countries. Then it whisked me down memory lane, making a pit stop at one of the mini crises I had dealt with in Ghana as Project Coordinator for an international volunteer organisation. It was the classic nightmare case: a 19-year-old boy from higher income country (HIC)-X imposed his beliefs and culture on another’s after two weeks on his project.

Even with several hours of rigorous discussion courses specifically implemented to prevent circumstances such as this, he managed to do exactly what we instructed him to refrain from doing.

Our organization placed him in a teaching assistant role with a primary school. This school, along with nearly every other primary school in Ghana, uses corporal punishment as its principle form of discipline. Each of our volunteers at this school was derailed by the apathetic teachers, the swift crack of the canes across little knuckles; their winces, their tears, their shame. All for what? Jumping out of their seats in excitement to answer a question, not leaving enough space between their letters, even answering a question incorrectly.

It’s an injustice, yes, but what can one person do about it in three weeks? Or three years? A system established by colonialists, embedded into their culture to the point of irrevocability as perceived by the country’s majority, is not going to crumble easily.

Unless you are the United Nations, and corporal punishment abolishment is at the top of the agenda.

This Times article stated that the UN requested countries using corporal punishment in schools (Swaziland included) to sign a pact promising to phase it out. I’d like to find out how the UN plans to execute and monitor this, as it’s not something likely to happen in one or even three stages. “Soon,” as assured in the article, might mean a decade or longer.

But oh, to see the grin on this boy’s face when he thought he’d rid corporal punishment from this school. (Next step, the rest of Africa!) After his project work one day during the middle of his second week, he strode gallantly into our volunteer house with a teacher’s cane in hand, arm raised over head, and exclaimed, “One down, ten more to go!”

The mess was cleaned up as best as possible, and we made a big lesson out of it for the other volunteers there as well as volunteers to come.

We all want to help people – Brendan Rigby’s post on his professional identity in development expounds on this theory. But why do people want to volunteer abroad? What’s at the core of this? Is the desire to “Make A Difference” this generation’s culture? We know the desire is coming from idealism – is it too much idealism, not enough education on sustainable development? Misinformation from the media? Or is it coming from a more personal level – have we as humans progressed into individuals who act on blind determination?

I know I can’t fix this (insert HIV/AIDS, poverty, human trafficking, etc.) overnight, but I want to give it a go anyway for the fun of it.

In this context, it sounds like self-interest, arrogance, impatience and possibly even need for recognition. …

Considering my interests in aid monitoring, sustainable development and cultures different from my own, working with volunteers and occasionally defending this industry to the skeptics can be challenging. Depending on the organization, the volunteers either come from all over the world or a specific continent. The range in age depends on what the organization’s programs offer, but the majority is between 18 and 24 years old, either on a gap year or still at university – therefore, usually they have not yet acquired a technical skill. Critics may hone in on this point, condemning organizations for allowing non-experts to do work they are not qualified to do and use the world’s poor people as guinea pigs. A volunteer with no technical skill to share will not necessarily have nothing to contribute to his or her project; though, this does not mean we (my previous and current employers, and hopefully most other similar organizations) would place someone at a medical project solely because he hopes to become a doctor one day. At least for certain volunteer placement organizations, extensive scrutiny goes into matching volunteers with projects.

Some volunteers are more focused on the project; others are in it for the thrill of traveling. They have different priorities and different views. Most are only able to join the four-week programs because of lack of time or money or both; very rarely do people stay longer than three months. A few are curious about how their program funds are used, which are perhaps some of my prouder moments while at work.

How is short-term volunteering sustainable? I ask this question every day – it forces me to balance my cynicism meter.

Short-term international volunteerism is not sustainable for community members. In a twisted way I take pleasure in watching volunteers realize this – it’s practically a wasted experience if they don’t learn this lesson. I do believe these community members are positively affected by the volunteers’ interest in them and their communities, which is arguably equally important as creating sustainable change. Both parties enjoy the personal exchange, be it a specific skill, hope, enlightenment or ambition.

If a volunteer is motivated and has easily transferable skills, it is possible to “Make A Difference” by practicing capacity building and developing or improving organizational aspects of a grassroots nonprofit. The question is, will the work achieved be/remain sustainable? To ensure sustainability, the progress made by the volunteer will need monitoring. Is long-term monitoring feasible for such projects? Due to lack of funds, among other factors, it’s usually not.

People apply for international volunteer programs in order to learn. To see and experience things they haven’t before. And if after their volunteer abroad experience, their ideas and thoughts are changed for the better – their ideas more practical and thoughts more open – the volunteers are the ones who have been developed sustainably.


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Michaela Brown

With experience in project management and marketing for international volunteer placement organizations whilst based in western and southern Africa, Michaela Brown is passionate about sustainable social change, intercultural relations, literature and travel. She now resides in Washington, U.S.

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20 thoughts on “International Volunteerism: who benefits most?

  1. […] and sustainable development classes to volunteers in Cape Coast, Ghana and by writing an acclaimed post for a development blog on the subject. I have infused my views on this topic in my jobs in sales, […]

  2. […] at WhyDev, Michaela Brown discusses the good, the bad, and the unsustainable about international volunteerism.  At one point she […]

  3. sam

    I think its a real interesting discussion being a volunteer numerous times. I debated myself alot at the end of a six month stay in the philippines. i always knew that i wasnt going to save the world or save these people but i did believe i had something to offer. i worked hard and the main thing i could provide was man power to a undermanned and under rescourced team. some efforts fundraising and new livlihood were successful while others wernt. i realised how crazy some of my objectives where when i stepped out of the organisation. i had tried to fix up the rubbish situation and whiched worked while im there but how can you try to convince people not to throw there rubbish around the charity but as soon as u step out of the gates people throw there rubbish everywhere as there is no real rubbish disposals. after trying different projects i got frustrated with some of the so called beneficiaries reluctance to participate. why should i work so hard when the “beneficiaries” dont care and help. the manager told me just as my time was up about a cultural reason as to why i was struggling.
    I run a sports and recreaton program through the vacation and this was well recieved. i thought boredom may tempt poor habits that can be seen in the community such as teen pregnancy, drinking, smoking, gangs. I believe it was a success but then i started to wonder is it right to give these youth a taste of life for a couple months that they can probably never have and then just wave goodbye and hop on a jetplane. Is it right at all to put youth who have already suffered trauma to walk into there lives then hop on a plane to my comfortable life.
    without a doubt i feel volunteering is selfish as i get out more than the other side. but i feel that maybe if i make some people happy, give them a new experience, let them know people care and keep the charity alive for a little longer then my selfish experience of a volunteer can be justified. i learnt more in 6months on the ground than i ever did in 3yrs of bachelor of international development

  4. […] at WhyDev, Michaela Brown discusses the good, the bad, and the unsustainable about international volunteerism.  At one point she asks: […]

  5. A few people have passed this link on to me, as I guess they know this is a topic I am passionate about! A version o a piece I wrote a while back called “Voluntourism: What can go wrong when trying to do right” went onto the Huffington Post’s blog today and a lot of the same issues are touched on: I believe that the growth in youth travel is indeed not going away, and that it is a very important part of the learning process in an interconnected world. For me though, the focus should be that we have to learn before we can help – and I really believe in groups like “Where there be Dragons” which explicitly sends youth abroad for the opportunity to learn. When we started PEPY Tours – we initially offered “voluntourism” trips, and like you said Michaela, we watched ourselves and the people on our trips realize one after the other that WE were the beneficiaries, not the other way around. So then, rather than offering the chance to come volunteer, we decided it made sense to explicitly offer the chance to come learn: get interested, get angry, get confused about the depth and complexity of aid, then THEN go out and improve the way you give, travel, and live because of that experience. At least that is where I am at in my thinking today… though I’m sure that will continue to evolve the more this sector continues to grow! Thanks for sparking the conversation!

    1. Hi Daniela, I completely agree with your viewpoint back in 2012 – I’m curious if your thoughts on the matter has changed, and if so in what ways. I recently started a social consciousness travel company (World Essence Travel – with the same focus that you mentioned in your comment – promoting intellectual discovery of a country and its cultures. The trips feature cultural and social understanding, culture exploration, reciprocity, environmental awareness, and conscious economics. We offer optional education and reciprocity programs to our tour group members: a socially conscious travel course as pre-travel education and a professional skills exchange/training opportunity with a local organization. Group members who choose to participate in the skills exchange project gain valuable industry knowledge from a vetted and esteemed organization in another country and reciprocate by sharing their professional knowledge or skill. After more work experience in the volunteerism/cultural exchange industries since I published this article, I began to understand that professional skills exchange/training is the most effective form of community engagement and development. With World Essence Travel, I built those travel education and reciprocity programs to fill in the gap of what I saw was lacking back in 2012 (mentioned in this article) and continues to lack today in travel/volunteerism programs.

      Thanks for your interesting comment way back when! Hope all is going well with PEPY Tours!

  6. Great to see your reflections and the important conversation this post continues to provoke. It reminds me of a post I did for Good Intentions: Voluntourism is the Best Option –, as well as so much of what Sandra has written there, along with Daniela Papi’s considerable contributions, and the website I’ve put together with a few others to share resources and discussion specifically on this topic: Finally, a few students have put together an interesting reflective site at the University of British Columbia that explores this theme:

    Great to see all of the important awareness of what can go wrong coupled with increasing understanding of best practices to ensure that much does go right. Thanks to all of the commenters for the helpful links many posted above as well. And thank you for writing, Michaela, and featuring it, whydev!

    1. An update to the above post….

      We have since updated our site to On it you can find the articles Eric mentions above as well as ~300 peer reviewed articles, ~100 original posts and dozens of teacher tools like sample syllabi. Check out the latest post,

      Thanks, all.

  7. “But why do people want to volunteer abroad? What’s at the core of this? Is the desire to “Make A Difference” this generation’s culture? …idealism – is it too much idealism, not enough education on sustainable development? Misinformation from the media? Or is it coming from a more personal level…”

    Incidentally there’s new working paper out by the NBER that seeks to prioritize the many models of charitable giving that economists have come up with over the years. It’s not about int’l volunteerism per se, just charitable giving. Here:

    The authors do some clever experimenting and conclude that charitable giving is like a competitive sport — people feel pressured by those around them to conform to a certain standard of decency. The competition can get very intense in certain settings, and I think the 18-24-year-old demographic is one of those settings.

    Also incidentally, Jerry over at SEAWL had a post up the other day about expat aid workers and high school reunions. His post seemed to be in agreement with that NBER paper:

    “In the end, it will be abundantly clear just how great the EAW has become, being the selfless humanitarian and world traveler the EAW is. The married classmates will start wishing their partners were more like the EAW. The EAW, being so interesting and worldly, will likely get laid that night; and, with any luck, the class of [insert year] will walk away thinking about how meaningless their lives are. That my friends, is total victory.”


  8. I completely agree that ‘short-term international volunteerism is not sustainable for community members’ and it is disheartening to see a society where people only want to help for 2 or 3 weeks and then think they are ‘changing the world’. Even in 6 months to a year you are not going to change the world but you may make one small change to one person which sometimes can be enough. It is hugely important, if you are going to volunteer, to do so through an ethical organisation or charity. You need to volunteer with an organisation which really cares about the communities in which it sends volunteers to and this can be seen through the history of the organisation. If it’s been around for a long time, has good alumni and a good reputation then it’s worth going for. The world needs volunteers that work alongside local communities, that don’t just go in to change the way things are but to work alongside local people for a sustainable future for them.

    1. Andrea

      The world needs short term volunteers who can understand that they will gain more than they give in these situations. Then their presence can be of value, in supporting that community to value themsleves, their knowledge and their skills.

  9. J.

    I think you’re over-thinking it. Of course it’s always possible to cite an instance where “volunteers” did “some good.” But as we’ve learned through consistent, repeated experience over decades, on balance they tend to do more harm than good, are more work than they’re worth, and cost more whether financially or in other ways than it seems like they will be going in.

    Many have an extreme emotional need to, as a matter of principle, define a space in which “volunteers” are effective or fill a niche, but it’s time to recognize that no such space really exists. It just doesn’t.

    Can we please let the volunteer thing go already?

    1. Michaela Brown

      I hear what you’re saying, but this “volunteer thing” does exist. In fact, recently an entire industry (youth travel) has spawned from the same societal trends that this “volunteer thing” has.

      Samuel Vetrak, founder and CEO of StudentMarketing, presented the following data at this year’s International Tourism Fair (ITB) Berlin, collected from over 600 sources:

      • the youth travel market is expected to burgeon to 320 billion by 2020
      • global youth travel industry is currently worth USD 173 billion per annum and one in five international travellers last year was a young traveller
      • youth travel outstripped the global music industry and the top twenty premier football clubs last year in terms of global revenue generation
      • higher education and volunteering are the biggest growth sectors of the youth travel landscape ***
      • growth of over 8% in international arrivals in South America, South East Asia
      • emerging markets are easing visa restrictions and investing in infrastructure whist traditional economies are going through a period of re-evaluation on visa policy
      • emerging markets will overtake advanced economies in international arrivals by 2026

      Whether or not voluntourism is accepted by aid and development workers and critics, it exists. And it doesn’t appear to go away any time soon. We can only hope that the media and volunteer placement organizations do not advertise to potential volunteers that by joining their programs, they will be “alleviating poverty in the third world or mitigating the effects of conflict or natural disaster” as you mention in your “All I Wanna Do” post. They will simply be acting as responsible citizens and further developing their mindsets about different cultures and the world and its problems.

  10. Alex

    Here’s some interesting stuff on voltourism​thinking-of-volunteering-ov​erseas.html

    Plus a PhD on the gap year for those really keen http://​​/downloads/final.PDF

    1. Michaela Brown

      Hey Alex, thanks for sharing those links. That PhD thesis “Geographies and Pedagogies of the Gap Year” is a great supplement to this post, especially pages 122-132.

  11. I think it is important to draw a distinction between “development” and “volunteering”. Or, as this article seems to refer to, “voluntourism”. The distinction is an important one that I think volunteer organizations should strive to be more transparent about, especially since, as Anelda has pointed out, most seem to be fully aware that they are not contributing to any form of sustainable development.

    With transparency, I think the value of volunteering could be more easily recognized. Inter-cultural experiences, especially those where people from the developed world are able to gain a first-hand understanding of what poverty actually looks and feels like, is important. Time and again I have seen such experiences change people in a positive way, allowing them to bring back with them a global perspective that they share with those around them.

    Sure, sustainable development is rarely taking place, but the important question here is whether volunteering is actually counter-productive for communities. I think not, on the contrary every experience I have ever had or heard of for that matter has been a positive one. People simply enjoy inter-cultural experiences, and this includes community members who are able to interact with volunteers who come to visit from abroad. I am sure there are some bad cases out there, but more often than not I see international volunteering as a positive thing, so long as it is transparent about what it actually is.

  12. Anelda

    The conclusion that volunteers are the ones who have been developed sustainably seems odd. If you mean that they have developed a sustainable skill/practice/mindset then I am not quite sure that was the best way of putting it. Did you mean to say that volunteers are the ones benefiting rather than the communities they “work” in? If so the. I would agree wholeheartedly with you. What gets my goat is that this seem clear but volunteering organisations have no problem taking £1000’s from these young people to go and do some volunteering only to then complain that it does not actually lead to any sustainable development of communities. I understand the issue of funding constraints but if the model of volunteering is not helping development then why is it being pushed so hard?

    1. Michaela Brown

      Hi Anelda, thanks for the comment. I meant both. The volunteers are the ones benefiting rather than the communities they work in because they (the volunteers) have acquired new skills/practices/mindsets or improved old ones while volunteering with those community members.

      I agree that volunteer placement organizations ask for quite a bit of money to join their programs, which is why it is essential for interested volunteers to question, to challenge, to push for complete and total transparency from these organizations.

      Voluntourists use travel agents and volunteer placement organizations for a variety of reasons.

      One common reason: They would rather “book” with companies based in the U.S./Europe/Australia, where they come from because either
      – they (volunteers and/or their parents) do not trust “obscure African (etc.) nonprofit organizations,” or
      – the “obscure African (etc.) nonprofit organizations” do not have the level of organization, customer service or credibility they would like if they’re going to cough up thousands of $/£/€.

      Another common reason: The organizations that “need the most help,” or would seemingly provide the most authentic experience, are difficult for potential volunteers to find via internet. It would be easier to have someone on the ground who could check out these grassroots orgs run by locals to see if they need outside assistance, if it’s a sustainable project, if the coordinators are “in it” for the right reasons and are trustworthy, etc. Many grassroots orgs run by locals do not have the capacity to employ someone to do this, which is where these volunteer placement organizations come in.

      I’m not sure what you mean by volunteer placement organizations complaining that the volunteers’ efforts do not lead to sustainable development in communities. Haven’t heard of a case like this before. I ask the same question as the last one you posed, “if the model of volunteering is not helping development then why is it being pushed so hard?” (8th paragraph). Would love an answer too!

  13. I am not a fan of short-term volunteers for many of the reasons/experiences you point out. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that short-term volunteers are bad for ICT4D projects

    Now that’s not to say that /all/ volunteerism is bad. I particularly value long-term volunteers (6+ months) and feel they can have more impact specifically because they are foreign to the situation and can say and do things unacceptable to the norm and prove validity of those actions over the long term – like disciplining w/o a cane over an entire school year. Then its teaching by doing and modeling, not telling.

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