Bioethics Blogs

Finding the Questions: The Ethics of Voluntourism


By Margaret Desmond

It is almost two in the morning and I am standing on the side of street in Guatemala while the driver rings the bell for what must be the sixth time. No one is answering the door. This house is supposed to be my home for the next two weeks. Internally I feel there is some universal karmic force at work which is punishing me for falling into the trap of “voluntourism.” I could have just come on vacation and explored but instead I chose to set up volunteer work. While a common choice among other college students, I really struggled with the ethical dilemmas that voluntourism presents.

Voluntourism refers to combining travel and tourism with volunteer work, usually abroad in a developing country. This practice has generated a lot of controversy. If you type “voluntourism” into a search engine, you are sure to read articles written by students who participated in international volunteer trips and realized that such trips are the height of privilege as well as useless and at times harmful, in their opinion. I have heard stories of orphanages that are set up to turn a profit by bringing in well-intentioned volunteers, at times removing children from their families. Or the stories of families who received houses built by volunteers but still had no means of earning money for food and continued to beg on the streets. Clearly the system has flaws. But through my own experiences, I cannot condemn the act of service itself.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.