Voluntourism – the high road or the low road?

Great thought provoking article written by the folks at Voluntours in South Africa.

“Is it just a matter of time before

South Africa features as one of

these ‘irresponsible’ volunteer destinations?”

Although it is ultimately the volunteer who decides with which organisation they want to volunteer with and who will receive their hard earned money, it is vital that organisations provide responsible and ethical programmes. It is disturbing to see more and more articles online in which volunteers are over-promised and under-delivered. Is it just a matter of time before South Africa features as one of these “irresponsible” volunteer destinations?

UK volunteers have been scammed time and again, read about some of their experiences at the Telegraph and at The Times Online


Admittedly there is a growing awareness from consumers that they should do their homework properly. But even then, many websites look “responsible and ethical” – they use all the right terminology, are picked out by search engines looking for these key words or phrases. “Green washing” is difficult to see through and many websites promote themselves as ethical and responsible organisations.

Voluntourism in South Africa is booming! Every day we come across another operator starting up. Some plagiarising material from our own website without even attempting to change the wording. On face-value these websites looks good and say all the right things. But look a bit deeper and the cracks start to emerge. Some of them are not registered companies, some do not list their company registration number, some operate without a physical address, some only have a mobile number to contact them on …. and the list goes on.


The global trend of large wholesale tour operators offering voluntourism products has come to South Africa. A potential shortcoming in a lot of voluntourism models is that they operate their programmes like a normal retail travel booking – your community placement or should I rather say “booking” is automatically guaranteed and your money is taken. Importantly no screening or matching of skill takes place. What this means in practice is that the receiving community – in some cases vulnerable communities, with little rights and influence, often with OVC (Orphans and/or Vulnerable Children) in their midst – has no say on who comes into their community or what they will be doing. This “push” approach to volunteering does not always take into account the needs of the community and brings its own set of risks. In a worse-case scenario these operators could be sending paedophiles to work with children.

Voluntourism has many risks that communities themselves may not be aware of. Despite these risks, they often “buy-in” to voluntourism because of the promise of a monetary donation. One of the risks being that dependency is created and/or increased. And in some cases, the community often does not have the capacity to effectively utilize the large number of volunteers sent to them. If voluntourism is to make a sustainable contribution to communities then it is important that they do not replace local labour, but rather should work with local labour. Much of the “work” that volunteers are asked to do can and should be done by employing local labour. Should volunteer programmes be geared more at passing on higher-order skills than doing basic maintenance and repair work?


Volunteers should look beyond marketing-speak when selecting their volunteer organisation. Look at the way the organisation presents and markets itself, and what’s in it for the community. Some volunteer placement companies offer very short-term placements – this can range from a few half-days to a day or two where they are told they can make a difference. While others, offer a day or two in the community to “pass-on-skills” before driving their tour-bus onto the next waiting community. How best can the needs of the community be served? Are volunteers really able to pass on skills in a day or two? Should operators be educating their clients on the pitfalls of short-term volunteering or are they meeting a demand?

South Africa’s voluntourism market needs to look at the real issues before offering a community-based project. As a voluntourist destination, South Africa should be providing an ethical product and not placing our communities at unnecessary risk. As an operator you need to ask yourself, have you thought through the implications and risks of offering a community-based volunteer programme?


Should there be an independent body to “accredit” or certify responsible operators or programmes working with minors? Should we looking at best practice in the UK and the US where it is mandatory for anyone wanting to volunteer with children / minors to have a police clearance issued? Do you see the voluntourism industry regulating itself or will government step-in?

VOLUNTOURS published a Code of Good Practice: Volunteering in South Africa and we encourage other organisations to join us and adopt this Code thereby making South Africa more of a responsible volunteering destination.


4 thoughts on “Voluntourism – the high road or the low road?

  1. Valauble insight about the potential risks for volunteers and for organizations. This post has me thinking we might need to reword a description for a new package we’re working on. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I don’t know If I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read….

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