Voluntourism : Why volunteering overseas can be the wrong choice

May 30, 2013

"Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare"    Japanese Proverb

I have volunteered overseas myself, that's how I first came to visit  Sri Lanka in 2006, and  I know I had a romantic idea of my first trip and how I was "helping".   Years later with the experience of setting up and running Dogstar, I know how incredibly naïve I was and I am increasingly worried about the sudden rise in "voluntourism" both here in Sri Lanka and the entire Asia region.

In the last 5 years, there has been a huge expansion in "volunteering opportunities" with elephants

these are often run by people with no animal welfare credentials or even elephant management experience and the volunteering placements are being sold via third parties at eye-wateringly high prices! These elephants are actually owned elephants still being used for the tourist trade and the volunteers although compassionate about elephant welfare are just adding money to the pockets of the elephant owners and the secondary business that has been created around them. There has been a sharp reduction in working elephants "retiring" as even elderly/disabled elephants can now still be profitable to owners as they are kept working with "volunteers" I have witnessed first hand dangerous programs where volunteers are interacting with elephants with no correct supervision sold being via third parties who have never even visited the project!

Captive elephant in Sri Lanka in chains

In short, the impact on captive elephants has been negative

now people have found another way of monetising captive elephants and increasing their working life, welfare suffers, and most importantly nothing really changes for the elephants. 

Voluntourism companies don't just sell animal volunteering

Just as worryingly I have also meet teenagers from the UK volunteering with children in remote "orphanages", these volunteers don't speak  Sinhala or Tamil, they have no experience or qualifications to be working with children who may have lost family members to the war or Tunsmai. There is no child safeguarding in place, no support or training given to explain about local cultures, values or even dress codes. There is no long-term project plan just a series of unqualified short-term volunteers paying vast sums of money to third-party companies to "volunteer. "

If you are thinking of volunteering 

with us or any other organisation working with animals or people,  I would suggest you ask your self and indeed the organisation the following questions

  • What is the need?
  • What am I going to do that will address that need / do I have the right skills and experiences to actually help
  • Am I  legally allowed to work/volunteer
  • Could local people could be employed and trained to address the need
  • Is the organisation  I am working with in-country an NGO/Charity or a business
  • Am I "booking" with the organisation directly or via a third party
  • How does the NGO/ Charity /business measure the impact the program is having
  • What supervision/ training will I receive
  • If I am paying where does the money actually go, what % is given to the project if booked via a third party
  • Does the project really need hands-on volunteering or could I provide more practical help from home with fundraising or virtual volunteering
Street dog watches a bus in Jaffna Sri Lanka

Of course, not all volunteering programs are to be avoided

Volunteering with the right project can be an incredibility worthwhile and rewarding experience that makes a real and sustainable difference. We believe volunteering should benefit both the volunteer and the host organisation but most importantly volunteers should always make a positive difference to the organisation's beneficiaries.

Samantha Green 

Founder &  In-Country Director 

Dogstar Foundation 

P.s We do welcome ( by appointment ) visiting guests to see our programs, tourists who are potential or potential supporters/fundraisers who would like to see what we do and understand how their support makes a difference.