Volunteer Aid and Tourism – A Critical Overview

Simon Katterl*

Brisbane, March 31, 2014 (Alochonaa): There are structural flaws in the growing volunteer tourism (“voluntourism”) sector. Having worked for six months in Timor Leste in a volunteer capacity, I feel it necessary to talk openly and candidly about issues I personally encountered.

In 2012 I departed for Timor Leste (also known as East Timor) on a mission to change the world, by delivering education supplies to school children. My qualifications for this endeavour were: an incomplete Law/International Relations degree, my experience of a relatively wealthy Australian upbringing, and probably a smidge of hubris. Predictably, the operations didn’t go according to plan, and that is one of my greatest regrets. However the experience has taught me a number of (preliminary) lessons about development, and the reasons for why it fails (on the occasions that it does).

It Is Simply More Complex Than You Know

The determinants of education quality, health care provision, crime, domestic violence etc are all diffuse, transient and hard to pin-point. It takes years of academic study and on-ground consultation to develop the most elementary understanding of these causes, longer to begin developing appropriate responses, and even longer to effectively implement those changes. If you wish to assist the education system in a sustainable and ethical manner, you need a commitment to do these things. Building a school for a week, providing education supplies once a year, or volunteering in some skilled capacity, all develop obvious dependency relations, and regularly impose Western views in places and on people to which they don’t apply.

What You See is NOT What They Get

This is not readily known by the general public because there is an information divide between what people see in the West, and what actually occurs on the ground. Whereas fantastic claims about delivering “education” or “water supplies” (something Engineers without Borders is self-critical about – a welcome change) are presented here, the on-ground operations and challenges are much more difficult and mundane. The success and failure of operations aren’t dramatic narratives about overcoming adversity through sheer will or tenacity – its about getting people to meetings on time, developing appropriate management and pay systems, finding an office space, speaking the right language.

Should their faces be shown if you didn’t bother to learn their names?

Should their faces be shown if you didn’t bother to learn their names?

You may have provided education supplies, but what about the unpaid teachers, the inaccessibility of schools, the gender inequity for young girls, the lack of power, the break-ins? If you build a water hole, who provides the much more time-intensive task of training the community in how to use and repair it (if they wanted it in the first place). However you, as ethical consumers or contributors don’t see this, you see the pictures of children. You never know there names though, because that’s not important enough.

However it is understandable that, what I refer to as DAOs (development and aid organisations) feel the need to aggrandise their claims, because telling sponsors about your effective pay claims systems simply don’t bring in the bacon. You have to construct tangibles where they don’t exist. But lets not kid ourselves, this is misinformation, and it perpetuates the ill-informed knowledge about development challenges the world faces. It reduces problems to such simplicity that it baffles many why these countries haven’t solved the problem already.

A Lack of Accountability

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the aid sector is that there is no real accountability available to the recipients. If a government fails to fulfill its election mandate, you can vote it out. If a producer or service fails to meet consumer expectations, they will fail. If an aid organisation does not meet its promises, aid recipients have no recourse.

The relationship is one built on the continued beneficence of organisations and donors. Accountability flows from DAOs to donors, leaving the recipients dependent and defenseless. Fortunately there is a growing recognition that accountability must be self-imposed by organisations, however it is unclear whether this ethos is present in voluntourism.

There are no clear mechanisms for beneficiaries to enforce promises.

There are no clear mechanisms for beneficiaries to enforce promises.

The Myth of the Poor

In film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology Zizek makes the analogy between the two protagonists in the Titanic, and a deeply held myth among the bourgeoisie. Referring to Cameron’s “Hollywood Marxism”, Zizek claims the film ‘concerns a young rich person in crisis who gets his (or her) vitality restored through brief intimate contact with the full-blooded life of the poor. What lurks behind the compassion for the poor is their vampiric exploitation.’ I don’t think it is too difficult to draw parallels between the way in which some DAOs and participants operate, and the ‘crude privileging of the lower classes and caricatural depiction of the cruel egotism of the rich’.

The narrative operates something like – young person, soon after graduating high school, or in the process of university studies, suffer an existential crisis which can only be resolved by “giving” to the poor – in the service of humanity one is meant to find oneself. But this is somewhat misdirected. The privileging of people in developing nations reduces them to a caricature devoid of subjectivity – they’re presented as the poor and defenseless. The people in those countries becomes dehumanized means to our personal ends.

The “1st World Problems” campaign unwittingly illustrates the assumptions (of primitiveness) that underpinned the 1st-3rd world categorizations.

The “1st World Problems” campaign unwittingly illustrates the assumptions (of primitiveness) that underpinned the 1st-3rd world categorizations.

Returned from the country, the sentiment “I will never forget” follows, reminiscent of the dooshbagie move by Winslet’s character who goes on to live a prosperous life, but continues to derive enjoyment from remembering and proclaiming her story. With the aid of social media, this is enshrined in our digital self for all to see. Its a clear and tangible reference point for the claim that I am a good benevolent person.

Some Suggestions

But as I said before, the good is intangible, and is often known by only you and the few you touched and connected with. None of this is intended or directed towards the ethical, sustainable and progressive organisations that do great work, in fact its hoped that people are better informed to direct their efforts and accolades to such endeavours. Therefore some elementary tips for those looking to invest time or money might look for the following characteristics in an organisation:

  • A clear and pragmatic strategic plan that outlines goals, why they are necessary, what means they are undertaking to actualise them
  • Evidence of community consultation and support
  • Open and honest accountability through reporting of successes, challenges and failures
  • A model which avoids dependency cycles through real capacity building and support
  • An avoidance of volunteers as the sole basis for operations (it is notoriously unsustainable)

They might not seem like a lot – and more informed development workers would surely add to the list – but ticking these measures off reduces the chances of a number of flaws present in voluntourism. Invest wisely!

* Simon Katterl is a student of Law & International Relations at Griffith University. His current Honours thesis focuses on how the legal subject may be challenged and transformed by contemporary brain and mind sciences. This is cross posted via Deep North by a mutual agreement. Simon can be reached at

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

Categories: Aid, Development, Reflection

2 replies »

  1. Good post. I learn something new and challenging on sites I stumbleupon every day.
    It’s always interesting to read through articles from other authors and practice a little something from their sites.

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