Voluntourism: What You Need to Know Before Signing up

BY BRENDAN RIGBYDirector and Co-founder WhyDev.org

Mizoram is a little known state in northeast India, located between Bangladesh and Burma (Myanmar). Occupying an environment of rolling hills, its capital Aizawl is perched across a ridge line, creating a dramatically beautiful and steep city.

As far as Indian states go, Mizoram does not fit the stereotype. You would be forgiven if you did not think you were in India. The majority of the state’s population are a collection of several ethnic communities, who are culturally and linguistically linked and collectively known as Mizo, meaning ‘people of the hills’. The majority of Mizos are also Christian and alcohol is banned within the state. Mizoram is also the Indian state that accounts for the majority of refugees from Burma.

It is estimated that between 50,000-100,000 refugees from Burma are residing in northeast India, mostly in Mizoram. The refugees are predominantly from the Chin state of Burma, who have and continue to be systematically persecuted by the Burmese military junta.

However, to gain official status as a refugee, in the hope of finding protection and being resettled in a third country, the Chin have to make their way to The UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) office in New Delhi. It is estimated that 600 Chin refugees try to make their way to New Delhi each month, a journey of over 1,300 miles. UNHCR is not allowed to operate in northeast India, and the Chin who live there do so without protection or legal status. Without legal or refugee status, their life in Mizoram is precarious and full of daily challenges relating to employment, access to education and health services and deportation.

I travelled to Mizoram in 2009 as part of a team from the Centre for Refugee Research (CRR). At the time, I was completing my Masters in International Development Studies at the University of NSW, Australia. An option for this course was to complete an internship with the CRR, for which you would assist in designing and implementing human rights consultations and workshops with refugee communities in either India or Thailand.

The CRR, led by Dr. Eileen Pittaway, who was awarded the Order of Australia this year, has long worked with refugee communities in facilitating their capacity to advocate for their human rights. The two weeks I spent with the Chin refugee communities in both Aizawl and New Delhi were shocking, inspiring and transformational.

Such experiences are undoubtedly life-changing. They are also increasingly sought after, and the demand for such has witnessed the growth of the so-called ‘voluntourism’ industry. However, it is an industry that is largely unregulated, fraught with dangers for both volunteers and the people and communities organisations are purporting to help.

At the same time, such opportunities and certain organisations can offer truly rich and meaningful experiences. The experience with CRR was not a voluntourism experience, and was probably closer to an ‘internship in the field’. However, it is often difficult to know what you are in for. This post is not intended as a critique of ‘voluntourism’. There are already many out there. Instead, I want to offer a guide for readers who are looking to have similar experiences. Volunteering is activity that should be pursued regularly, but not without a critical understanding of why you are doing it, who you are doing it through and how you should pursue it.

The following are posts and resources that I urge you to read, consider and reflect on before you sign up for ‘voluntourism’ experience.

The Pearls

Dóchas, The Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisation, has created this Prezi-type resource that is as comprehensive as it is accessible. It is a unique resource that brings together many of the themes explored by the authors listed below. In particular, it highlights topics that are not always considered, such as the prospect of volunteer opportunities in your home country. Of interest to those of you who have impact on your mind, there is also a pearl dedicated to exploring the benefits and outcomes of volunteering.

The Dedicated

Alexia Nestora Voluntourism Gal

Written by Alexia Nestora, a voluntourism industry consultant, this site offers extensive research links on voluntourism for those who want to really sink their teeth into the industry. Alexia also offers succinct summaries of voluntourism opportunities and organisations. Although it is a site aimed at industry professionals, the blog posts offer dedicated and fresh insights from within the industry. The posts also aggregate interesting content, media and links for you to explore until your heart’s content. In particular, if you are wanting to volunteer at an orphanage, Alexia urges you to think again.

The Analytic

Aaron Ausland ‘Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance

Aaron Ausland has worked in international development for over 15 years, and is currently the Director of Independent Research and Evaluation (IRE) at World Vision. His article provides a very good framework for your research, because not all poverty/development tourism experiences are created equal. There are differences and nuances that have often been over-looked in the debate. How is ‘voluntourism’ different from ‘slum tours’? Where does ‘study abroad’ fit into the picture? Aaron has created a taxonomy for classifying the variety of experiences on offer. You should use this when researching opportunities, organisations and experiences to see where they fit in. On ‘voluntourism’, Aaron concludes, that it is an experience that is usually more tourism than volunteerism:

“I think I’d rather the tourist observe, struggle with their desire to do something right then and there, discuss, reflect, and then go home to figure out what the experience means for them and how they can be part of something bigger than themselves that is helping make a lasting change”.

Aaron also wrote a longer post dedicated to examining voluntourism here, and it is well worth the read.

The Alternative

Daniela Papi ‘What’s wrong with volunteer travel? Packing up with your laptops and custom usb drives..’

This is a presentation that Daniela gave at TEDxOxbridge. It is short, only 10 minutes, but a fantastic primer for thinking critically about voluntourism. Daniela was the Executive Director (2005-2011) and Founder of PEPY Tours, a social venture that seeks to facilitate ‘learning service’ for volunteers. PEPY has also produced two fantastic resources that you cannot go past. First, ‘Learning Service: Tips and Tricks for Learning Before Helping’. This is a brilliant tool that will help you responsibly choose a volunteer placement. Read it.

Second, ‘Learning Service: Volunteer’s Charter’. This tool will help you, once you have found placement, improve your role within an organisation. The underlying theme of both resources is learning, for empathy, for change and for exchange. ‘Learning service’ builds on the concept of empathy learning, which Daniela explores in her TEDx presentation. Daniela also recounts her own volunteering experiences, looks at recent trends and talks about future practices. She wants to see the industry ‘stop sympathy volunteering and start empathy learning’.

“If you plant papayas, you can’t get mangoes” (Cambodian saying).

See also, Daniela Papi’s ‘Voluntourism: What could go wrong when trying to do right

The Personal

J.B. Mckinnon ‘The Dark Side of Volunteer Tourism

J.B. is the Malawi projects coordinator for I Live Here. In this article, he recounts his experience as a voluntourist in Malawi, attempting to set up a creative writing program for orphans in jail. It is a personal account, both self-aware and self-deprecating. It offers no easy answers. J.B. does not say definitively whether voluntourism is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but offers three conclusions that he has reflected upon.

“First, nothing is likely to stop the increase in person-to-person contact between people of the richer nations and people of the poorer. Second, there is much to be gained on both sides from this exchange. Third, those gains will be made through a series of small, personal, humbling errors”.

From here, it is up to you how you conduct this exchange.

Jerry Alonzo Leon


Jerry's favorite country to travel to is Spain. When he's on the road, he keeps it real simple with a pen and a pad. His travel style is spontaneous, easygoing, and always in search of a great adventure.

Jetset Times in your inbox

Sign-up for our newsletter

By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Policy and European users agree to the data transfer policy.