In recent years, more and more platforms have appeared offering volunteer programs for all ages. The growing supply of opportunities might create confusion among volunteers and activists, as it can be difficult to detect the weaknesses and the strengths of programmes which offer several benefits, but at the same time feature controversial elements. For example, volunteers might have legitimate questions on the vision, mission and values of certain agencies which are not always clear and transparent; also, some programmes might be too much centered on the participants to the detriment of a real impact on the local community; even worse, there might be projects which contribute to a private business or to the financial sustainability of the sending organisation only, but do not offer any support to the hosting organisation. Last but least, some programmes might leverage on the above-mentioned “white saviour complex” to recruit more volunteers, reinforcing stereotypes and spreading distorting images of the hosting communities. To avoid losing our sense of direction when facing the plethora of offers available out there, it is useful to understand some basic differences between“real volunteering” and the so-called “voluntourism”:

Volunteering Voluntourism
Short, term and medium projects whose main objective is to volunteer All those collaborations that are carried out taking advantage of a trip whose main objective was tourism
The volunteers dedicate their day to work in order to help and give tools to local people to generate change The purpose is not the development of any society, but to make it possible for the client to live a life-changing experience, to have an adventuring and “to do something good”
The project is coordinated by non-profit organisations working with their local community It Is a concept created to meet a growing demand in society for people who wish to make a difference. The market has been able to focus on this desire and, in exchange for money, companies offer voluntary programmes moving massive capitals
The impact on the community and on the volunteers goes beyond manual actions. They both benefit from intercultural learning, active citizenship and transforming mindsets It can have a negative impact on the local community such as loss of jobs options. It perpetuates the idea of top-down approach and relations between rich and poor.

(source: VICA –  Volunteering In Conflict Areas Toolkit – CCIVS, 2022)

By reflecting on these issues, we can propose together new ways for development, growth and cooperation through cross-cultural volunteering. We can adopt approaches,  procedures and communication styles which are more respectful towards the hosting communities in the Global South. And we can help outgoing volunteers to develop realistic expectations through effective preparation, which includes learning modules on decolonisation, critical thinking and ethical communication.