Volunteering: passion or business?

posted in: 5 W's, Focus Uganda, Volunteering | 4

My past volunteering experiences have always been with organizations I either knew myself or I had good connections with. They were NGO, missionaries or even simple group of friends that had won my trust.

Few months back though, I started organizing a volunteering trip a bit different from the previous ones. The most difficult part so far has been finding a project that would treat volunteering honestly and seriously. .
I’m not saying the projects I checked were not serious. But many, too many of them consider volunteers like a business opportunity. This business, done at the expenses of the volunteers, has a name, it’s called “voluntourism”.

A volunteer and a technician are painting the facade of a workshop
Simple handy works are often the most requested by many projects

Volunteering or Voluntourism?

Voluntourism, volunteering-tourism, is defined as a recent trend, a travel style, usually international, linked to “doing good” as a part of the experience. It’s applicable to many different fields: from environmental programs  to archeology, from animal care to social assistance. .
The volunteer leave full of good intentions, he pays a fee, he works, he participates to some local activities somehow pre-organized and goes back home satisfied of his experience and maybe also slightly shocked by some situations he had witnessed.

What’s wrong with this? In theory, absolutely nothing. The issue is that volunteering has been turned into a sort of touristic holiday. And like for any other kind of holiday, there are agencies and project that speculate on it. When volunteering turns into voluntourism, it becomes a money making machine, especially when the volunteers are exposed to harsh situation to push them to donate more. There are often tales of orphanages of children care centers visits with underfed, sad and half naked children, with flies all around and dirty noses.

A crowded class in the north of Tanzania: volunteering focuses on changes, voluntourism focuses at the money
Elementary mixed-ages class

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, very good, to see certain life situations for us lucky birth lottery winners!
But a serious organization shows you transformation besides the need. It shows you the school that teaches the entire village bringing opportunities, the program that offers food to entire families, the children well dressed for the Sunday, the mum that has a new eggs stall at the market thanks to the hens she received. A serious organization shows you ”how it is now” compared to “how it was”. It shows you the potential in the future compared to “how it would have been”. And they do this also to demonstrate practically how they spend the donated money.

Considering the amount of money some agencies ask the volunteers to pay, I wonder: “But with all that I gave you for a single week, you really can’t buy a clean dress to these little ones?”.

Children are doing their homework in a free after-school class
Children are doing their homework in a free after-school class

Pay to work

I’ve found difficult to find a project that accepts volunteers on the field without asking for a fee. Or at least a fee proportioned to the local daily expenses.

With quick search on google you’ll find dozens of agencies specialized in connecting volunteers with projects that are needing volunteers. Those that work mainly with North Americans and Canadians are the most expensive. I’ve been asked even more than 500$ per week for room and board. And still the fee doesn’t includes visa, plane tickets, insurance and any other extra which are obviously all on me. Let’s do some math to put this amount into the right context: with my 500$ per week, in some countries, an entire family of 5 can easily survive for an entire month.

And I wonder how much of this “program fee” actually goes to the project I’d like to work for. Usually unknown.

Children coming out of school play with soap bubbles the volunteers are blowing
Children coming out of school are surprised by volunteers with soap bubbles. Pure joy.

Is volunteering only for the rich?

With voluntourism becoming the normality, it’s easy to have the impression that international volunteering is something only the rich can afford. But this is not the truth! Of course an international flight doesn’t come cheap! But if someone can have holidays in Thailand, then he should also be able to go as a volunteer. It should actually be a lot cheaper!

Volunteers with a good will are the victims here. And they don’t even realize it.

A serious project doesn’t ask for money to work. They might ask you a little reimbursement for the expenses, but we’re talking about a few dollars per day, or not even that. Enough to go to the market for your food, or to come to the airport to pick you up 5 hours away on an unpaved road.

A story of volunteering where voluntourism has not creeped in, yet: A girl shows to the volunteers how she has learnt to use the loom as part of her training at the local project
A girl shows to the volunteers how she has learnt to use the loom as part of her training at the local project

November-December 2019: my volunteering in Uganda

At the beginning of November I’m going to Uganda. 40 African days. After Tanzania and Mozambique, this is my 3rd trip to the continent with the beautiful red soil!
I’m not going to talk in detail about the projects I ended up choosing for my volunteering trip, because I haven’t been there yet and my opinion can only be partial.  

For now I can say that two Ugandan families are going to host me in exchange of English classes, children entertainment, IT support and other general and random tasks.
In this introductory page I explain a bit more about the places, the timeline and the volunteers. For the generous ones, there’s a fundraising too!
In the next few weeks I’m going to tell you more about how I’ve found Denis and Rachael, the leaders of the two projects I’m going to work for.

Follow me in Africa!

Pinterest image: the volunteers minivan is surrounded by a group of children coming out of school in the suburbs of Arusha, in Tanzania. Differences between volunteering and voluntourism

All the images in this page are owned by the author and therefore protected by copyright.
Some can be bought on
Shutterstock and Dreamstime.

4 Responses

  1. Kathy Walker

    It’s a great thing that you’re doing volunteering to help others. I definitely understand what you are saying that if it cost so much to volunteer where is the money really going. I hope to follow your future journey and I hope it’s all you are wishing for. Wishing you good luck.

    • The Lady

      Thank you, I’ll try to keep the blog updated while in Africa too! 🙂 Indeed, where is the money going? That’s what troubles me the most. That’s one of the reasons I like going to the field, to actually see the real work!

  2. Kathy D

    I wonder why programs geared towards North Americans are more expensive than say Northern Europeans. Do you think it’s because we are willing to pay more? I think the idea of trying to plan something like this while avoiding the large voluntourism businesses and staying safe seems daunting to the average American. Great article. Very thought provoking.

    • The Lady

      Yes, I do think it mainly depends on the market: if you’re willing to pay more, they’re going to ask you more. I’ve seen this even on “normal” holidays: the very same tour/treatment can have 2 completely prices depending on the target. Another reason could also be that Americans are used to a higher standard of service and paying “a lot” gives the feeling you’re going to be safe and protected and served as you want. Which might be true or not true, I have no idea 🙂

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