Mother Teresa and Voluntourism? Seriously?

An article came out in the CS Monitor recently that was brought to my attention by the awesome folks at In the article the author says, “Mother Teresa faced criticism over the years from those who said the work did little to address the root causes of grinding poverty” and then links this to voluntourism and the debates that rage about whether or not we are doing good.

Another part of the article said, “Mother Teresa’s program was a precursor to VolunTourism,” says David Clemmons, founder of, by e-mail. “There was no grand, long-term commitment. The program was crafted to allow for movement and flow of volunteers. And if individuals wished to volunteer for a day or two and then go sightseeing elsewhere in Calcutta … they were free to do so. In this way, Mother Teresa was ahead of her time.”

Is having volunteers volunteer for a day or two and then go sight see as Mr. Clemmons suggests really helping anyone but travelers feel better about themselves? Is it OK to NOT have a ‘grand, long-term commitment’???

Do you think this is all a little far fetched and reaching or does it have some realism in it???

Read the full article:


2 thoughts on “Mother Teresa and Voluntourism? Seriously?

  1. It seems to be that the length of the commitment is not the most important factor to take into account. The real question is whether the outsider’s contribution helps or hurts local people. A commitment of even a few hours can be beneficial. A life-long commitment can be damaging. If it hurts the local people the longer the commitment the worse it is.

  2. I agree with the comment that the time involved is less important than the nature of the contribution. I don’t understand what is the basis of this snobbery that says that unless you spend x amount of time on a volunteer project then you are just wasting your time. It isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, and it isn’t like any effort is going to singlehandedly save the world from itself. Instead, the benefits accrue from sum of a lot of efforts, great and small, which together can add up to make a difference. And who is to say what seeds are planted, either in the recipient of the volunteer effort, or the volunteer him/herself?

    I think that we take back from these trips can be significant. I find it interesting that a certain major party 2010 gubernatorial candidate of a certain state brags on his website that he spent time working with Mother Teresa. He now lives in a $1.8 million mansion in the hills of a major city, in a neighborhood where poor people aren’t generally found. But I guess it looks good on your political resume to associate yourself with Mother Teresa and it gives you a saintly aura without actually having to lead a saintly lifestyle.

    As for the charge of not addressing the root causes of poverty, I suppose one could make that charge against all forms of voluntourism, but again, I don’t see that as an either-or proposition. We do not refuse to treat the symptoms of a disease just because the sick person also needs antibiotics to cure the disease. Helping the victims of poverty can and should go hand in hand with addressing the root problems. They are complementary activities.

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