Reg Charity 1143560
Thought Piece

Does international volunteering ever do more bad than good?

By Guillaume Lefevre
Successfully sending volunteers abroad for 10 years

Recently, on a Facebook group advocating responsible volunteering, a soon-to-be nurse from the United States asked for medical placement recommendations in one of four African countries. Several group members shared resources demonstrating potential harm of short-term international medical volunteering. Her response: “No thank you I’d rather be encouraged to go volunteer than discouraged.” She promptly left the group.

This exchange perfectly highlights a recent trend in international volunteering and one that Agape Volunteers has been thinking about and dealing with for many years. Without questions, there are volunteer companies in the world whose placement are not sustainable, safe or even helpful to the local community, and these must be discouraged. However, there are also a lot of very ethical and intelligent organisations which do good work, and they shouldn't necessarily be tarred with the same brush.

Our view on this was tested quite openly during a debate between our CEO, Guillaume Lefevre, and the Charities Coordinator from LSE, David Coles. This debate reported here in The Telegraph hinged on the fact that if appropriate safeguards are in place and the projects are genuinely beneficial to local communities, then why should all forms of international volunteering be taken in dim light.

Our view on this topic is that is there are several prerequisites when designing a volunteer programme and that if these are met then it has every chance of being a genuine benefit to both the local community and the volunteer. Some of the things that we think about when designing our programmes are:

  • Is there a genuine need for this project? Are we meeting a local need, or are we just pandering the needs of the volunteer market? It is for this reason that we don't run all our programmes in every country, we only have them where we have identified a genuine issue that we think we can help with volunteers; and
  • Do we have access to the right sort of volunteers to actually make a difference? For example, over the years we have gradually increased the requirements and qualifications required to work on some of our medical programmes because less skilled and experienced volunteers were not needed; and
  • Can we guarantee the safety of our volunteers and the members of the community that they will be working with? Our HIV programme in Kenya is an excellent example of this. When working closely with HIV patients it is essential that our volunteers are safe but also that we are delivering actual aid and help in a sensitive fashion. The only we can do that is through placing all our volunteers on an intensive course before they start, at that is what we have done with every volunteer since 2015 as a result.

This is just a summary of the sorts of thing we have to think about at Agape and the sorts of things that all volunteer organisations should be considered on a daily basis. “Voluntourism” is a booming multibillion-pound industry. Many volunteer placement companies market themselves as sustainable, helpful, even crucial, but that is obviously not the case. However, what we believe very strongly is that not all organisations fall into that bracket. The industry is full of highly committed people, genuinely striving to improve things overseas, and we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when criticising those organisations or practises which do not match the standards required.

If you have any further questions about this (and if you are thinking about volunteering, you should!) please contact our Senior Trip Adviser, Charlie Bishop at to find out more.

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