The Psychology & Ethics of International Volunteering

Last Updated on November 7, 2023

The ethical landscape of the international volunteering industry is complex. It’s a twisting network of ideologies, methodologies, and different approaches to development and aid.

It’s also the cornerstone of any discussion on volunteering.

There’s an automatic trope in the West that volunteering is inherently “good.” This is sold by the media, by colleges, and by the shining faces posing in developing communities while they “do good” and share it on social media.

Volunteering Creates Complex Ethical QuandAries

ethical volunteering in the developing world
Local women go about their day in rural Rwanda on a trip to visit social enterprises active in the area.

As the industry becomes more culturally entrenched in volunteering as a rite of passage for Western twenty-somethings, it’s increasingly important for every new volunteer to critically examine the ethical implications of volunteering in disadvantaged communities.

Although all volunteering projects—domestic and abroad—come with the issues discussed in this post, it’s an issue particularly prominent in international volunteering. Once travelers leave their home community, there is a culture clash, a values clash, and a chasm between the volunteer’s understanding of local systems and the reality in each new place.

Most recently, I heard this explained as the reductive seduction of other people’s problems. It’s a catchy way to explain an idea that haunts much of the volunteering industry. At the core, it’s the idea that foreigners (and not just those with the White Savior Complex, but anyone looking to solve the development problems outside of their home community and home culture) believe that problems in other countries are easily solvable.

It’s easier to see the complexity in our own systems—gun violence and incarceration are deeply entrenched in American culture and have tangled historic implications not easily disentangled. Then we look at something like rural hunger in Asia, water access in Africa, educating girls in the Middle East—and believe that it’s an easy fix if only someone was working on the solution.

They just need a better water pump.

Mosquito nets will solve the malaria problem.

Just make the playground generate electricity for them.

Lack of regulation and low-functioning governments in many developing economies perpetuates these myths, easily allowing 20-something foreigners to found orphanages Nepal, distribute faulty power-generating soccer balls in Mexico … the list is long.

locally run tour in myanmar
Views during a locally-operated tour of Inle Lake in Myanmar as we sought to better understand the culture and history of the people living on the lake.

What Volunteers Should Know Before Volunteering Abroad

Believing a complex social, environmental, or cultural issue is simple is a dangerous mental tour for anyone, but especially those planning an international volunteer trip. It’s not only naïve, but it’s potentially harmful for everyone involved.

Any volunteer hoping to take part in the multi-billion dollar voluntourism industry first needs to pause and reflect. Not only about reducing the complex issues down to the simple, but also on the entire ethics and psychology of how volunteering impacts those living in these international communities.

Look, it’s hard to have not looked a complex situation and reduced it to the simplest terms. Heck, it’s what the media has taught us to do.

But volunteers must look at their own motivation and truly assess if an upcoming trip is better suited for a grassroots tourism—visiting social enterprises and locally run tourism projects.

Most of the time, volunteers should actually plan a responsible vacation intended to support and boost local projects and local economies rather than a voluntourism trip. But sometimes, that advice isn’t heeded, or the volunteer truly feels they have the time and skill to justify a volunteer trip.

If you’re going to volunteer, then you now have the infinitely harder task of determining the motivations of the volunteer organizations.

Because while it’s one thing to take on an internal reflection, it’s even harder when you start looking at the volunteer organizations all over the world. Ethical volunteering is a complex issue and one not understood in a single post. Instead, use the articles and resources on this website to form a better understanding of the complex ethics of the international development and aid industries.

volunteering ethicially with a social enterprise in Oaxaca
When a chance arose for GV’s founder to volunteer with a microfinance organization in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico, she leapt at the opportunity to work within indigenous cultures through a local social enterprise committed to long-term solutions driven by the needs of the community.

How to Assess a Volunteer Company’s Ethicality

Not all organizations are doing good work.

Let’s get that out of the way straight off. The title of NGO, non-profit, or human rights organization—none of these labels actually guarantee that the projects are using sound development ethics and implementation.

Understand that some organizations may truly believe that they are coming from a positive place of giving and help, when in fact they are not. Or they are doing some good work, but it’s complex and there is harm too.

Organizations must consider the needs of the community and the long-term impact of voluntourism on the local ecosystem and on those people affected both directly and indirectly by volunteering efforts.

If the local voices are not are not fully included in the volunteer process, nor in the project planning, then there are serious ethical issues with how that project is ethically and practically impacting the issues they are addressing. I’ve seen projects take every care with the human rights situation, but pay little attention to the project’s exploitation of local natural resources.

In the worst case scenarios, there’s not even the guise of naiveté, and an organization is simply skilled at masking profit-driving motivations and aren’t much concerned about culturally sustainable development.

Make no mistake, there is big money in the international volunteering industry.

For Americans, consider the privatization of our prison system—this single act altered the very idea of how we carry out “justice” in the United States. There is big money in increasing the prison population, and even bigger money in keeping prisoners incarcerated. Despite the clear need for systemic change, profit-driven companies now control the conversation.

Likewise, international volunteering organizations have a vested interest in promoting volunteering. These organizations package and sell volunteer trips to disadvantaged communities like they would package a trip to Disney World.

There is a market for volunteering, and placement organizations have a strong financial interest in ensuring that volunteers feel good about their decision to volunteer overseas. And they also need their projects to continue into the future.

Building programs that make volunteers obsolete in these communities—by building projects with lasting impact and charting a course toward economic independence—is not financially sound for them.

If all of this seems overwhelming and far more complex than you anticipated—good. That’s really the point. International volunteering should not be undertaken on a lark.

Likely, if you’re reading this article, then you already suspected that the situation is more complex than simply picking a reputable project and hoping for the best. It’s complex, there’s grey area, and there is never a clear-cut answer.

But it’s also rewarding to find projects that genuinely need a volunteer’s skills, time, or effort. These volunteer opportunities exist despite the best efforts of mega-voluntourism companies marketing the slickest, sexist projects.

Let’s dive deeper into specifics of two key considerations when vetting your own potential volunteer experiences. It’s every volunteer’s responsibility to make sure their chosen organization is working toward fixing the right types of problems, in a way that respects and includes local cultures and communities. 

And while a good number of volunteer experiences involve working with the environment as opposed to working with people, it’s on the people-based experiences that this discussion on ethics focuses.

That being said, there are countless conservation and animal welfare projects that have similar issues at their core. If you’re focused on working with plants or animals, rather than directly with people, it’s still important to understand the ethical nuances of volunteering.

Before working in any volunteer capacity, you should first consider the issues of dignity and dependence.

Does the organization (be it an independent local company or a major voluntour operator) center their programs on maintaining the dignity of every person in the community?

Is the organization responding to the community’s specific and communicated needs (not perceived needs) and empowering them toward a long-term, sustainable community that is not dependent on international volunteers to thrive?

Are Locals Able to Maintain Dignity During Volunteer Interactions?

Learning from a local Bedouin woman how to make jameed. Her community is supported by a nearby ecotourism project in Wadi Feynan, Jordan.

There is often an overlooked side effect of volunteering that positions the volunteer as the benevolent helper. The academic community terms this “othering.” The volunteer wants to do service and feel good, and often, that good feeling is born out of direct contact with those they want to help.

On the surface, there’s the simplistic idea that any help is better than nothing, especially in poverty-stricken regions. But that’s the surface of the situation, the nuance of human psychology makes the very nature of “helping” fraught with ethical implications.

How do the people feel when you spend a weekend in their community handing out your used clothes? There’s cognitive dissonance in having a team of Westerners in hot-pants throw cans of foreign food from trucks and into the hands of conservative slum-dwellers in India.

And what about the wrenching relationships children form with short-term volunteers at orphanages? This has gained a huge movement in the past several years, but it was a wrong choice even during the decades no one was talking about it.

Short-term volunteers abroad want to play with and hug orphans, to see their plight and maybe read them a story. Then the volunteers leave, feeling like their afternoon has “done some good for the world,” while the children are left waiting to temporarily bond with the next batch of good Samaritans.

In each of these situations, the volunteering circumstances compromise the dignity of the locals. And that’s the best-case scenario because the scenarios above can do worse than that. But let’s focus on the dignity.

To better understand, think about the alternatives. In the first circumstance, volunteers could build a community system to employ locals and orchestrate skills training. Then, the community could perhaps buy those same used clothes at a thrift store.

Handouts from volunteers and travelers leave the locals indebted to the foreigners and dependent on handouts. But buying those same clothes for a nominal, regionally appropriate fee empowers the community toward self-sufficiency.

The women passing out canned German food to slum-dwellers in Chennai did so because they wanted to see the impact of their “volunteering,” even though there were better avenues for distributing food. Their system was inefficient and random.

navigating dependency and dignity on volunteer projects
Many times the question comes down to: Do you have buy-in from locals on the project who have the agency to direct how the project unfolds and when they are “accessed” by volunteers and/or visitors?

Rather than portioning foods to all families affected, their decisions bypassed some families, leaving some holding foods and others staring at the scantily clad foreigners. And yet, Chennai had actually organized a massive and effective food distribution system to solve that issue. But the volunteers had decided that they better understood the situation and could create a deeper impact.

As for orphan tourism, this is a huge global issue, with Africa being a front-runner for afternoon playdates. In many cases, tours drop off travelers for mere hours so they can hug orphans with AIDS. Travelers then get back on their tour bus feeling good about themselves. These children have become objects and only serve to reinforce stereotypes in many ways.

Short-term projects involving children and volunteers are most often flawed. Anyone considering working overseas with disadvantaged children should either not do it, or thoroughly research the situation before you participate and dedicate an appropriate amount of time to serve those children and that community.

The approach many projects take toward an issue underscore their approach to the issue of dignity. There are circumstances where volunteers should not be allowed in contact with the vulnerable. There are projects that can be shifted and presented in a different light with just a few tweaks. Only by understanding the issue can volunteers then identify how an organization protects the dignity of those impacted by international volunteers.

Does the Volunteer Opportunity Eliminate Dependency?

Unemployment is a global problem, and a problem that affects you as a potential volunteer. Volunteer programs walk a fine line between adding needed skills, time, and labor to a community, and taking jobs that could benefit locals.

Even community-developed projects may not have considered the issue of long-term dependency during the planning stages. In many cases, communities are desperate to infuse cash into the local economy with voluntourism fees, which leads to poorly planned volunteer projects.

Just because a local community wants the volunteers does not automatically make it an ethical project.

ethical social enterprise visit to the maasai in kenya
A fair few volunteer programs are actually run by locals who have navigated their own cultural nuances to arrive at solutions that may not seem “perfect” to a Westerner, but are appropriate to the problem, the people, and the situation. This was the case at the Maji Moto Cultural Camp in Kenya, which is very slowly working to help change cultural attitudes about female genital mutilation among the Maasai.

Organizations using volunteers to build houses, schools, and painting projects are fine on the surface. The community needs a school, and your labor helps build it, right? They need eye exams, so isn’t it ideal that doctors volunteer for weeks and months to examine a community?

In the building situation, hiring local labor would invest the money donated for the volunteer project directly into the community. So it is clearly ideal to hire local labor, right? Well, this is where the web gets tangled when we’re talking about volunteering. Often, the fees and donations from volunteers actually fund these projects. Communities bring in volunteers as a way to raise those needed funds, and that’s not a bad idea for them either.

The crux of the issue is that some programs create a system that can only be maintained by more volunteering and foreign donations. This is dependency. This is not ideal because it keeps foreigners as the support system for a community.

Ideally, the United Nations and other global groups are finding ways to empower local economies to grow and thrive without continued money and support. It’s this very reason that I’ve dedicated a good part of my work building a database of locally run tourism businesses.

By having travelers support local businesses, especially social enterprises, there is an opportunity for lasting impact and economic growth. And while that is then, once again, forming a dependency on tourism, that’s an economic system that can gain strength and build a local community’s economic resiliency, rather than dependency on the whims of a single organization or set of volunteers.

There are examples of the dependency issue within each field. Medical students offering treatments are a wonderful short-term fix, but add training to the mix and you have a long-term solution at the local level. Raising funds and constructing a school is surely good, but working with the community to set up a system that can support a school with teachers and supplies over several decades is better.

Room to Read is a wonderful example of an organization working on literacy with communities across Asia and Africa. Room to Read builds libraries and school literacy programs in collaboration with local communities and governments. Each community provides a half monetary co-investment in the project. This investment ensures the community wants and needs the library or school and has a vested interest in maintaining the project over the long term.

Spending the early morning hours on the backwaters of the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam was a peaceful and beautiful way to observe the culture via my local tour guide.

Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate this point is to fall back on this eloquent and concise fishing parable:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day;
teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Even in developed economies, this idea of dependency is a challenge in building lasting change. It’s present in how San Francisco approaches homelessness and how Louisiana addresses extreme poverty.

And it’s certainly an important issue to consider when creating sustainable improvements in developing communities. Volunteers should not be the solution, but one cog in a larger wheel eliminating dependency.

Teach people how to fish. Teach a homeless man construction in the West, or a woman from Africa how to sew and sell trinkets. Or perhaps train a new mom in nursing skills so she can protect her village’s long-term health.

Many volunteer programs could benefit from prioritizing training over one-offs. By bringing in skilled volunteers, the programs create a system where valuable knowledge is being left in that community and furthered on the ground even once the volunteer leaves.

For dependency, the middle ground lies within training and collaboration. Organizations aimed at decreasing long-term dependency through skills training and empowerment, in conjunction with volunteer placements, are ideal.

Projects the world over have undertones of dependency. It’s too simple to say that no project should create dependency—nothing is black and white. Instead, volunteers (and organizations for that matter), need to better understand the role dependency plays and enact steps to shift the dynamic.

Why Dignity and Dependency Matter

Please think about every angle of a potential volunteer experience. For many volunteers, the issues of dependency and dignity give a new perspective on volunteering. I point it out here so you can approach your research with as much information as possible.

It is the volunteer’s responsibility to learn about the ethical quandaries, issues, and attitudes within this industry. As Courtney Martin said, “the “third world” is not your classroom.” There is harm in leaving to volunteer without researching and making every effort to align your actions with sound intentions and follow through.

is slum tourism an ethical part of international travel?
I organized a social enterprise tour of the Kibera Slums in Kenya, and to this day I am not sure it was appropriate. The organization is doing good work to funnel tourism dollars into local development projects, but slum tourism remains something I have always felt straddles the ethical line since the majority of those residents did not choose to have tourists walk past their doorstep that day.

Leaving your home country to volunteer should not be undertaken on a whim. Your actions have real-life effects—both positive and negative—on every person, place, and project you touch.

There is a good reason why I so strongly advocate for grassroots travel over volunteering—with grassroots travel, there is a more clearly defined relationship dictating how locals want to receive your help.

And make no mistake, supporting local businesses and economies is helping. It’s an extremely effective way to serve those places you visit on your travels. I’ll go so far as you say that most volunteers should have some travel under their belt before committing to a volunteer project.

Scope out the people, place, and culture you are dedicated to helping. If you’re still keen to volunteer, then commit to the issue for the long-term (this means years), understand it, support, and listen to where and how others want your support.

That’s the responsible, ethical approach to volunteering abroad, even if it’s not nearly as fun or sexy as what the multi-national voluntourism companies have sold you.

Ready to dive deeper into responsible tourism? Here are the core tenets of responsible travel.