Voluntourism and Its Roots in Neocolonialism

Voluntourism is a rising industry among the wealthy working classes in well-developed countries. According to a Thrive Global article in 2017, it garnered an annual income of $173 billion dollars. What makes this industry profitable and how is it detrimental to society? Voluntourism is a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for charity, under the guise of evangelization under God. People typically participate in voluntourism through short-term missionary trips which are typically a few weeks long.  Volunteer program organizations promote the idea of giving back to a community through improved local conditions. The target demographic for voluntourism are high school and university students, as most seek to acquire resume fluff, self-enhancement, and adventure. Of course, these students have a sense of altruism, but it isn’t their main motivation behind volunteering in poorly developed countries. Instead, they assist  these volunteer organizations in capitalizing on their demographic’s desire to “help” countries to exist in the capitalist market; everything is to make a profit.

This is where neocolonialism comes into play. Neocolonialism is the use of economic, political, cultural, or other pressures to control or influence other countries. It especially aims to form dependencies, and is often criticized as a form of late-stage imperialism (a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force). Modern countries utilize the voluntourism industry as a way to legitimize their standing in less-developed countries. In countries like Liberia and Ethiopia, they have never experienced classic colonialism and have become neocolonial states due to their fragile economic state. As a result, these countries rely on international finance capital. This new form of colonization exploits and controls the newly independent states of Africa and other African states with feeble economies. 

The greedy voluntourism industry encourages first-world countries to spend time in less fortunate countries. Volunteers participate in “feel-good” work and activities that seem beneficial in the moment but actually result in long-term detriment for the community at hand. Some of this “feel-good” work consists of working in hospitals, teaching English to the locals, or building schools. For medical volunteering, there is little regulation and standard training required for one to volunteer. There is also usually a language barrier between the physician and the patient. A word lost in translation can cause a misunderstanding that can potentially worsen the patient’s health conditions. Despite the altruistic nature of medical volunteering, it has raised concerns about the lack of public health and preventative measures that could cause health risks. Building schools has run into the issue of funds. Who is going to pay for the materials to build the school? If the school is built, will it even be built with great care and quality considering the time constraints of short-term missionary trips? If the school is built, who will pay the teachers? How much are uniforms going to cost? Where will the uniforms be made? How much is school tuition?  

For the foreseeable future, voluntourism is here to stay. However, mindful research can ease the harmful effects that may unfold. If you wish to volunteer abroad, here are the steps you can take to ensure you are easing your effects on the voluntourism industry:

  1. Recognize your motivation.
    1. Is it to provide health services? Evangelize? Promote personal growth?
  2. Thoroughly research projects that interest you and align with your objectives
  3. Find programs that cater to your particular skill set and experience
  4. Choose a program that promotes local self-sufficiency 
  5. Contact the program managers to gain more incite and learn about potential training opportunities
  6. Ensure that the project organizer is well connected with the community and location

Works Cited

Afisi, Oseni Taiwo. “Neocolonialism.” internet encyclopedia of philosophy, iep.utm.edu/neocolon/#H4. Accessed 14 Oct. 2020.

Matt, Darby. “Voluntourism is Neo-Colonialism.” Medium, 6 Dec. 2018, medium.com/@darbymm85/voluntourism-is-neo-colonialism-56b6a25f6924. Accessed 14 Oct. 2020.

Pariyar, Sujan. “Annual $173 Billion Worth of Volunteer Tourism Industry Is Enough to Make a Change.” Thrive Global, 16 Oct. 2017, thriveglobal.com/stories/annual-173-billion-worth-of-volunteer-tourism-industry-is-enough-to-make-a-change/. Accessed 14 Oct. 2020.

Smith, Megan, “The Cost of Volunteering: Consequences of Voluntourism” (2015). Anthropology Senior Theses. Paper 170.

Stein, Yetta Rose, “Volunteering to Colonize: a Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Impacts of Voluntourism” (2017). University Honors Theses. Paper 411. https://doi.org/10.15760/honors.410Walleigh, Rick. “6 Ways to Volunteer Abroad and Be Really Useful.” Forbes, Next Avenue, 23 Mar. 2016, http://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2016/05/23/6-ways-to-volunteer-abroad-and-be-really-useful/#517f57961bd4. Accessed 14 Oct.


Kimberly Haque is a 16-year-old, first-gen Vietnamese/Bangladeshi junior at South County High School. Kim hopes to pursue the biomedical field, however, she strives to advocate for social change through education. Kim is heavily involved in her school’s music department, taking part in its orchestra, marching band, and indoor drumline. She is excited to write and be a part of the Zenerations team.

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