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Bethan Wilson

September 3rd, 2021

An interview with David Coles: the ethics of voluntourism


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Bethan Wilson

September 3rd, 2021

An interview with David Coles: the ethics of voluntourism


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

What is voluntourism and why is it often talked about negatively? How can I volunteer abroad responsibly? What should I look out for when looking at volunteering overseas? We know there’s a conversation on campus about the ethics surrounding volunteering abroad, so we interviewed David Coles, the LSE Volunteer Centre Manager and part of the ReThink Orphanages campaign group. If this topic is of interest to you, come along to our event on Wednesday 27 January where we’ll be discussing voluntourism and screening ‘The Voluntourist’. Find out more on CareerHub

What are your thoughts on voluntourism/orphanage tourism?

I’m really passionate about the idea of people changing the world for the better through volunteering, my whole career is based on helping people do that. Overseas volunteering or ‘voluntourism’ has become extremely popular over the past ten years, particularly amongst young people, and whilst there isn’t anything wrong in that in itself we have seen some serious problems come with such growth.

One of these is orphanage tourism/volunteering. Understandably volunteers want to volunteer to make an impact with those that need the help the most. More often than not they are pointed in the direction of vulnerable African or Asian children, particularly those that live in orphanages. Google ‘volunteer overseas’ and look at the image results that appear. Young, mainly white, people teaching, cuddling and playing with children without a local adult in sight perpetuating a dangerous myth that international volunteers are needed ‘to give love’ to these children because they lack the relevant support in their own communities.

We know that volunteering in orphanages can be particularly detrimental to children; it can lead to child trafficking, sexual exploitation and psychological disorders. Along with the fact that many children in these residential centres have at least one living parent. Over 60 years of research shows the problems associated with growing up in a residential care home and we should all be striving to help keep families together not creating further demand for more orphans by continually sending volunteers to orphanages.

So whilst I encourage people of all ages to volunteer, both in their communities and others, I am strongly against orphanage volunteering and would encourage students to avoid this activity in any form. I’m really proud that at LSE we founded the pledge to not advertise orphanage volunteering and many other universities have joined us.

How do students or young people responsibly volunteer and what should they watch out far if they want to volunteer abroad?

Can international volunteering be done ethically? Yes! Check out this blog from Martin Punaks for further information. Additionally one of the best things to do is ask questions of any organisation that they are considering volunteering with. A good organisations will encourage this as they are looking for engaged volunteers who understand the task at hand. These might include:

  • What are the organisation’s main aims and goals?
  • Can they showcase the impact of their work?
  • Is the organisation non-profit or for-profit?
  • What selection criteria does the organisation have when choosing volunteers?
  • What is the involvement of the host community in the project?
  • Is there a role description available?
  • What are the conditions in which volunteers live and work?
  • Can the organisation put you touch with previous volunteers?
  • Can the organisation give you precise contact details for your chosen programme?
  • Does the organisation provide pre-programme training and post-programme support for volunteers?
  • Are there costs associated with the volunteer placement and, if so, can you get a breakdown of how they are spent?

I would recommend avoiding organisations that focus their time telling you about their fees and how cheap they are, or offer discounts to sign up. The consumerisation of the market and the creation of customers, rather than volunteers, is a problem and this indicates that an organisation sees you as someone to sell something to rather than work with to solve a social issue. My colleague Ruth Taylor also came up with the “two minute rule”. This means that if you can sign up to volunteer with children in another country in less than two minutes then you should immediately close the website and walk away. This is not a responsible organisation.

I would also look carefully at the imagery and wording used on the website of a potential organisation. Do they showcase their beneficiaries as change-makers in their own right and in a position of power to make a positive difference in their community. Or are they portrayed as people waiting on ‘white saviours’ to arrive to “save them”. Throughout colonial history Africa has often been shown as a child with the adults being the colonialists. This is often repeated on voluntourism websites where photos show a white adult with a black child without a local adult in view. Understanding that beneficiaries should be treated with respect and ensuring that you volunteer with and for people rather than at them is really important and the examples above can give an excellent insight in to an organisation’s values. In relation to this I would encourage volunteers to sign up to the side-kick pledge.

What is the most common pitfalls many people experience/face when they volunteer abroad?

One of the most common pitfalls is that people expect to radically change the world on a relatively short trip. It is possible to create sustainable change through volunteering but it will be incremental. Organisations will sometimes look to give the impression that change can be quick and easy and this can lead to an expectations gap, in relation to what can be achieved, and subsequent disappointment and/or disillusionment.

Additionally volunteers can arrive with an attitude that they have all the answers already. I can assure you this won’t be the case. Being humble, understanding power dynamics and looking to learn before helping is an attitude that will lead to the volunteer creating much more sustainable, long term change to the cause that they care about.

What will the future of voluntourism will be like? 

It’s human nature to want to improve the world and that’s a wonderful thing. However, making sure that skilled volunteers are paired with opportunities that are suitable is essential. I expect that orphanage volunteering will be continued to be phased out as many organisations are changing their ways. However, some are greenwashing their activities to make it look like a different activity when, in fact, it is exactly the same.

More and more young people are aware of the dangers of voluntourism and understand the need to learn before serving. I’d recommend reading the Learning Service book which goes in to huge detail about this. As a result I expect more people will go on experiential, and immersive, learning trips to gain a better understand of the issues we face, how they are often inter-connected and steps that we can all take to solve these. Organisations like Ayana Journeys are experts in these and there are many other similar organisations springing up.

If you’re inspired to volunteer the LSE Volunteer Centre can help. Check out one of our other 200+ ongoing opportunities or book a one-to-one with David Coles, the Volunteer Centre Manager if you have more questions. If you are short on time, then take a look at the one-off opportunities happening over the rest of Lent Term, organised by the LSE Volunteer Centre. If you want to share your volunteering experience with us, why not write us a blog? Have a scroll through our blog page to read what other students have written and get inspired!


About the author

Bethan Wilson

Beth’s main responsibilities are working with a fantastic team of Student Volunteering Ambassadors and coordinating the centre’s marketing and communications. As an LSE alumni, Beth strives to put the LSE student experience at the heart of everything the Volunteer Centre does.

Posted In: Charity | Discover ID | International development | International organisation | LSE Careers | NGO | Volunteer Centre

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