The Volunteer Travel Industry: Business Exploits Poverty?

By Sarah Carroll, Co-Founder, The Ethical Volunteer

The Volunteer Travel Industry: Business Exploits Poverty?

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6 Responses

  1. Hi Sarah- good work in setting this up! You are absolutely correct in the approach you have taken;it is all about grassroots collaboration whether to do will volunteering or sustainable tourism in general. The traditional model leaves all the control with 3rd party commercial intermediaries (outside the country) taking well over 60% of anything paid by consumers or volunteers, which creates over-reliance and suppresses local economies and substantially dilutes volunteer action for all the reasons you expressed well. I am developing a fair-trade tourism platform for each African nation all based on grassroots collaboration. You can checkout which is an early BETA site and would like to see if we can find ways of helping your initiative. Best Graham Leslie (Founder

  2. Hi Sarah

    Thanks a lot for sharing your experience and setting this initiative up ! Although I agree with most of the comments you have done, I´d just like to clarify a point about volunteering. What you have described here corresponds in my opinion to a very specific experience with a for-profit volunteering agency in which the social mission might have been diluted by the need of keeping the sort-to-say “business” alive. I´ve recently had the opportunity to volunteer in Namibia for a year and a half as a VSO volunteer. VSO UK is an international organization that has for main purpose to share skills and build capacity within local NGOs. The volunteer does not pay a penny and we receive accommodation, monthly allowance, return flight ticket and medical insurance for the whole duration of the placement. On top of this, we receive a lot support before, during and after the placement in the form of trainings, counseling or whatever is needed for the volunteer to do a serious work in the best conditions possible and achieve the greatest impact. I just wanted to make this clarification so that the readers of your post also understand that there are other volunteering organizations out there such as VSO ( ), peacecorps or UN Volunteers that are really serious organizations and have an amazing impact in the regions where they deploy volunteers at no monetary cost at all to the volunteer or the host organization.  I think it is important to make this distinction because volunteering should not be about making money of any sort, it should be able to attract the most professional, motivated and talented people for the different causes and above all, it should be free of charge so that more and more people are willing to spare some of their time to a good cause.

    Mine has been a life-changing experience which I would recommend to anyone !

  3. Hi Sarah – As the Founder of VOICES OF WOMEN WORLDWIDE & VOW-TV at  … which is purely run on a voluntary basis for the past two years … I started it as an experiment from a career in print/photo journalism to… being a 35/16mm documentary filmmaker who started using her video camera as a pencil from 2001 and found myself having interviewed hundreds, if not thousands of ordinary grassroots women, young girls and men doing extraordinary projects in their rural and urban communities worldwide … and then having the opportunity to give their presentations at the United Nations headquarters …

    Then in 22 February 2011, UN  WOMEN was created and I found that no UN, US or global mainstream media was covering their stories … so I launched VOWW & VOW-TV … on the internet … On 4 July 2013, we celebrated our 2nd anniversary with 1,075 members (free and by invitation only) spread across 82 countries … and now they want ACTION … they want opportunities to work as volunteers (with airfare and a small per diem- No 5-star hotels, air conditioned cars, etc.)  Simple living and sharing experiences and helping to start small businesses in textile weaving, art work, and teaching the teachers  …. etc.

    Reading your blog – I was very glad to see how you handled your situation and want to thank you for sharing your insights …



  4. @ Isabel, I absolutely agree with you. VSO is extremely well run and I am very much in favour of their approach. Our model is in response to the industry and is an alternative for those that would not be considering the VSO approach (either due to time or skill limitations). I agree that when a volunteer has an applicable skill and is able to make a significant time commitment they can have a very positive effect on communities and should not be expected to pay for opportunity to make this contribution. While I would love to encourage all overseas volunteers to approach volunteering in a similar way to the VSO model, the “volunteer industry”, which deals with shorter term and often times less-skilled volunteers is booming and it is within this group of people that I want to encourage better overseas volunteering.

    I recently had a conversation with someone who asked why we don’t promote home-stays. Again, we very much approve of homestays as this would further ensure the “trickle-down” effect of money within the community. However, our model is for those that choose expensive agencies because they want the perceived security and familiarity of their model. For many, the idea of setting off on their first trip to Africa to stay with a local family may be frightening and steer them back towards the agency model, and so we want to highlight the feasibility of using local accommodation providers and linking directly with projects. This is a similar experience to the “agency model” but supports the local economy in the process (and, of course, the direct contact allows projects to choose appropriate volunteers for appropriate time periods). There are certainly other ways of volunteering outside our model that we also approve of (or that may, in fact, be better), but we want to create a viable, realistic alternative to agencies.

    @ Leslie. Thanks for the comments and the link, the site is very extensive and a really good way to give local businesses a voice. I think there is certainly room for us to work together (ill email

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