Do the terms Volunteering and Voluntourism mean the same thing?

volunteers in Ruhanga SW Uganda

In this post, I am going to revisit questions about volunteering and voluntoursim. This is because the debate about the value or otherwise of volunteering abroad rages on and has given rise to new questions such as;

  1. Is volunteering a waste of time
  2. Is there a role for voluntourism in International development
  3. Is volutourism exploitative
  4. Who benefits from voluntourism?

What is the difference between volunteering and voluntourism?

The most important question for me relates to the distinction between volunteering and voluntourism. I distinguish the two terms as follows;

Volunteering involves working for free meaning that the volunteer is not compensated for their time. In some instances the volunteer may be compensated for expenses they incur in the course of volunteering such as travel costs. The volunteer may never have to travel abroad nor meet the beneficiaries of the work he/she does and it does not involve tourism.

Voluntourism on the other hand, involves a volunteer travelling to abroad to a project for purposes of volunteering and touring/tourism. A working holiday of sorts, but in this instance there is no compensation for the work undertaken. Instead the volunteer pays a fee for the privilege of being at the project as well as tours undertaken.


As far as I can work out, most people do not object to either the concept of volunteering nor voluntourism per se. There are however objections to the perceived financial exploitation. The objections are  precisely that the amount of money charged by organisations that send voluntourists abroad  is too high. In addition that, not all of  income generates is for the benefit of the receiving community. They are questions too, regarding the benefits of voluntourism and the extent to which it contributes to community development.

Writing for Africa on the Blog, Ossob Mohammed shares her experience as a Voluntourist and raises another objection that is to do with ‘OTHERING’ and privilege

An Example

At this stage  I would like to tell you about our Community Project in SW Uganda which  is mostly funded by voluntourists and without them we would not have achieved as much as we have done. This includes a school built from scratch and provides education for 460, 20 taps of clean water, mosquito nets to 250 homesteads and now a community health centre as well as a skills development centre. I wrote about one of those volunteer’s contribution here 

When the project got started the idea was that it would be self sufficient as there were no expectations of government funding. The starting point was bed and breakfast accommodation for which the guests would pay a small fee and that money would go into community projects. The guests would also be taken on the various Safaris around the country, again the profit from this would be ploughed back into the community.

In my experience the host organisation has to prepare the visitors for their community stay and plan the activities that the visitors will engage in. Get it wrong and there is disappointment either side.

But equally the volunteer/voluntourist has to plan and be clear on why they are going to a project abroad and take on on board the advice provided by the host organisation.

We often get visitors who choose to ignore our advise on for instance appropriate behaviour, which has led to complaints from local councillors re: drunken behaviour , inappropriate dress etc. This is something we warn against but some amongst our visitors simply ignore our advice.

Notwithstanding this, it is my opinion that, done correctly voluntourism has scope to impact development. This is because the money goes directly into local economies. In our example, the visitors travel by local buses to make the 6 hour journey from the capital to the project. Once there, most of their holiday money is spent within the village or nearby towns. They consume local products and shop locally.

I do accept that badly managed programs can lead to poor experiences both the visitors and host communities. In turn there cold be bad publicity for the ending organisations and indeed some in the receiving communities may take advantage of  the visitors e.g. through begging or misrepresentation of the community and poverty levels.

An example of this, is a man from a nearby village to where we are in Uganda, who used to turn up at our project under the guise of taking the visitors on a village tour which included an orphanage, it turned out that the so called orphans were in fact his own children and those of his relatives. He simply wanted to make money out of the visitors!

Have got a view on any of the issues raised here? Leave a comment below

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