Making science work for development

Does Short-term Volunteering Abroad do More Harm than Good?

11 October

Does short-term volunteering abroad do more harm than good?

Each year thousands of young people volunteer overseas on short-term development projects, but are they doing more harm than good?

From gap year placements and ‘voluntourism’ to the DFID funded International Citizen Service (ICS) scheme and corporate team building trips, in recent years there has been a rise in the number of people volunteering overseas.

On the one hand, volunteering abroad promotes a sense of global citizenship, allowing people to explore other cultures and get involved in poverty reducing projects, whilst gaining new skills useful to their CV.

On the other hand, short-term projects abroad have been dubbed ‘neo-colonial’ and potentially damaging to host communities as they can create dependencies on volunteer help, encourage a charity mentality, take jobs away from locals, and often involve untrained and unqualified young people being placed with vulnerable people.

Many have also questioned the motives behind volunteering itself, arguing that short term volunteering in developing countries serves to enhance a volunteer’s employability rather than helping those most in need.

So does short term volunteering abroad do more harm than good? Who really benefits from the projects, and what do they contribute to long-term sustainable development objectives?


Tricia Barnett is currently Director at Equality in Tourism, a non-profit women’s consultancy and network dedicated to gender equality in global tourism. Previously she was Director of Tourism Concern for over 20 years during which she was identified by Which? magazine as one of the 5 most influential people in the UK travel industry. See her profile here.

Dr. Jim Butcher is Reader in the Geography of Tourism at Canterbury Christ Church University and is the author of several books and papers on tourism and culture, most recently ‘Volunteer Tourism: The Lifestyle Politics of International Development’ (Routledge, 2015). See more information on his research here.

Alex Kent is International Director of Strategy at Restless Development, a youth-led development agency that sends volunteers from the UK to work abroad alongside national volunteers through its International Citizen Service (ICS). ICS is DFID funded and offers young people 10-12 week placements in Africa and Asia. Prior to Restless Development Alex worked at WaterAid, Save the Children, Global Campaign for Education, Robin Hood Tax campaign and Comic Relief. See her profile here.

Professor Andrew Jones is Vice President (Research and Enterprise) at City University. He has a particular interest in how the activities of organisations relate to the ongoing development of a globalised economy and has previously authored a study for the UK Government on the nature and significance of 'gap years', leading to a further long-term project examining overseas youth volunteering projects. This work explored the impacts on volunteers and, to a lesser extent, host communities of gap-year volunteering across the globe with a focus was how the 'soft' skills developed in voluntary work are relevant to the way young people gain certain important skill-sets and abilities in an increasingly global job market. See more information on his research here.

Moderator: Bibi van der Zee, Editor of The Guardian Global Development Professionals Network. See her profile here.