What You Need To Know About Voluntourism

International volunteers and volunteer abroad programs – while extremely popular – often come under fire.

Online articles pop up, written by frustrated former volunteers, complaining about the futility of westerners heading off into the unknown, to ‘change the world’. I’ve read sweeping generalizations about thousands of interactions from one or two crappy experiences. You know, stories about ‘white saviour complex’, dependencies created, etc.

While these articles may have some truth to them – it’s important to be critical in assessing any social or economic development program – my guess is that those international volunteers either had inappropriate expectations, or their host organizations weren’t doing it right.

RELATED: Don’t forget to do these 5 things when you volunteer abroad

My major problem is that the articles I’ve come across don’t ask the people on the ground how THEY feel about meeting and working with international volunteers. Their voices have been effectively silenced.

So I decided to ask them myself.

Its not just about work, volunteers dance and cook and share culture with real Ugandans

Here’s Specioza, Maureen, and Halima – getting rad!


“You spent a lot of money on your education and you came all the way here to share some of it with us for free. That is good.” – Elizabeth, women’s group member.

“Volunteers take work seriously. The community sees that and also becomes workful.” – Steven, farm worker.

“Learning from each other is the best experience of life. We learn the importance of networking with other NGOs. We are now more professional in serving our community.” – Travis, partner organization director.

“You teach us stuff we don’t know. About what it’s really like your side.” – Primary Class 7 student.

“There isn’t a lot of creative thinking in most of the schools here. Volunteers have not only brought this to our schools but have also emphasized to the children the need of having a reading culture.” Valance, partner organization director.

“Parents struggle hard to bring their children to our school because there are volunteers here. They believe children learn things they wouldn’t otherwise learn. They want the exposure.” – Judith, partner school headmaster.

RELATED: Why You Should Volunteer in Uganda

Volunteer working with Ugandan school children

Zan at work in Bulumagi in 2014


“Before you come, we’re happy. When you come, we are also happy. We learn new ways of doing things, we can decide to adopt them or not. And when you leave, we are happy.” – Tony, partner organization director.

The Real Uganda has been hosting international volunteers since 2005. We’ve seen over 900 people come through our doors. Not all volunteers left Uganda a better place, but certainly not one of them had the power to destroy it.

It’s time to give the folks on the ground some credit, please.

Want to decide for yourself what all the fuss is about? Spend some time on this website. Know that our focus is on cultural exchange and building relationships. While your time and skills are needed, it is your individual personality, work ethic, and stories that Ugandans really want.

Want to get your head in the right place when preparing to volunteer abroad? Here’s what NOT to bring.

Voluntourism is a popular way to travel. While it does have it's critics, we spoke to people who actually work with international volunteers. Read what they have to say about their interaction and cultural exchange with voluntourists.
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4 thoughts on “What You Need To Know About Voluntourism

  1. Pingback: Uganda as a success story, only no one knows! – The Real Uganda

  2. Pingback: Don't Forget These 5 Things When You Volunteer Abroad | The Real Uganda

  3. Chanae Pratt

    This certainly doesn’t need to be published but since you have this article and comment response I thought perhaps I’d share some of my thoughts and you with your experiences could enlighten any misunderstandings. I have felt very conflicted about my time in Uganda with The Real Uganda. I loved the people, the experiences, the culture- it’s hard not to fall in love with the beauty of Uganda. However perhaps it was my naive notions of what to expect from this trip. I was partnered with The Real Uganda through a third party organization who suggested it was were my abilities would be best used. I had these false ideas that I could form partnerships and friendships were I could continually serve a group of people. I didn’t want my experience to be just some trip, but rather the beginning of a relationship where I could try and continue to do some good. What I took away from the trip is that much of the benefit of such trips is for the education of the volunteers. Ugandans are doing well and prospering. They do things differently and by Western standards of living may seem to be lacking but they excel in so many other areas. By and large the impact of volunteers on the community is minimal- but the impact for volunteers is large. I appreciated the things I learned in Uganda but it didn’t leave me feeling like I really had done anything for the people I worked with. Granted, how much can a young volunteer do in a short stay? I have since aligned myself with an NGO where we perform necessary surgery on individuals who otherwise would have no opportunities for surgery. (I work in the O.R. back at home and did when I went to Uganda). I do struggle and worry about what “white man complex” this could leave on the communities I serve. However without grand answers of how to greatly benefit a community I at least can look at this and say I’m helping give my time and money to restore health to someone who otherwise wouldn’t have it. I loved working with Tony- I love Uganda and periodically my husband and I talk of returning. However it’s hard to feel justified to spend the time and money when it seemed the benefits of going to Uganda were all for me and not the people I wanted to serve. Relatively how much can any volunteer do? Their effect is minimal. But I feel I had very little to offer the wonderful people of Uganda.

  4. admin

    Chanae, thank you so much for your detailed comment. This is exactly what we want people to understand. Uganda is doing fine and prospering and wants to share its successes and challenges with the outside world. The Real Uganda is trying to highlight the damage the white saviour complex can do to communities. I’m glad you’re aware of it, but I hope you’re looking at ways to minimize it in your current volunteering role. Wanting to serve is an interesting concept – but we have to balance it with appreciation and empowerment. We wish you and Tyler well! Leslie

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