The narcissism of voluntourism

Scrolling through my Instagram feed over the winter holidays I double-tapped a slew of images from friends and fellow students who were embarking on the 40K entrepreneurship in India. The volunteer program is popular amongst university students, fits in well with the holiday break and even contributes towards credit points for their studies. This ‘voluntourism’ has become a huge global business, where tourists “undertake holidays that involve aiding/alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment” (Wearing, 2002: 240).

Reception of this practice varies though, and has been criticised for focusing on the volunteer’s quest for experience (or a better profile picture) as opposed to meeting community needs. Whilst volunteers are told on the first day of 40K that they cannot initiate long-term change by being there for merely a month, many times in other programs, volunteers may not be fully aware of what they are signing up for. Pippa Biddle, a journalist from the Huffington Post argues that they can do more harm than good, especially when volunteers are sent out to perform tasks they are not formally trained in and have little/no knowledge of the culture of the country (2014). This advertisement captures the problems of this.

Just like the privileged, ignorant female, this voluntourism can promote stereotyping and simplify the problem (like assuming Africa is one country). It creates ‘othering’ and fuels the “white saviour complex” where the problems in one country seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve than those of one’s own society. A contentious case is ‘AIDS orphan tourism’, where volunteers stay for several weeks as caretakers for orphans living with AIDS. The repeated connections formed with these children can be emotionally damaging as they can feel abandonment when another group of volunteers leaves.

In order to improve impact, journalist Natalie Jesionka advises volunteers to adapt to culture, be flexible and realistic. Prior research and living in a community for longer than  a month creates a less domineering, non-judgmental environment where volunteers “are not driven by the altruism they paid for” (2014). Only through understanding the problems communities are facing and striving to develop skills of residents within that community, that long term solutions will be possible.


Biddle, P 2014, ‘The Problem With Little White Girls, Boys and Voluntourism’, Huffington Post, 24 February, viewed 30 August 2015, <>.

Daldeniz, B Hampton, M 2010, ‘Charity-based Voluntourism: Evidence from Nicaragua and Malaysia’, Kent Business School, no 211, pp 1-4, viewed 29 August 2015, <>

Kascak, L 2014, #Instagramming Africa: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism, The Society Pages, weblog post, 29 December 2014, <>.

Norman, A Richter, L 2010, AIDS orphan tourism: A threat to young children in residential care, Human Sciences Research Council, viewed 30 August 2015, <>.

Zakaria, R 2014, ‘The white tourist’s burden’, Al Jazeera America, 21 April, viewed 29 August, <>.


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