Voluntourism Does More Harm than Good

In August, 2013, Heather Ruiz traveled through West Africa as a journalist for ADRA. After working in development for nine months, Ruiz moved to a village in the Western Sahara to find answers for her questions about responsible volunteering and empowering communities. In the following article, she shares her reflections on constructive service.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://spectrummagazine.org/article/2014/12/02/voluntourism-does-more-harm-good

Wow Heather! Thank you for this beautiful clarity and perspective! I guess all short term missionaries really need to contemplate if we are serving in missions for our own experience or actually sacrificing to serve others. One trip is for self and one is for Jesus.

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“Do you know what this village means? Generations of desert wanderers, learning and toiling for their bread and meat and homes. We are proud of this; we are empowered, by this. Now, give a village man a handout? You’ve just weakened him. You’ve increased his dependency; diminished his sense of self-esteem. One of the most widely-accepted notions is that Westerners are the solution to African problems. This requires portraying us as helpless and endlessly recirculating images only of abandonment and violence, or innocence and primitivism.”

This village chief understands more about the crippling of humanity than America’s best social policy makers.


If there is one thing that underdeveloped and developing countries have is unskilled labor. Importing it does little to help the local economy. What is needed, though, is skilled people who represent skills that are not available locally. Physicians, nurses, dentists, psychologists, social workers, agronomists and others are often greatly needed. These skilled volunteers are important to the health and welfare of people, and if used properly, provide training to locals to continue working when volunteers are not available. This training is often difficult to come by in many countries because of its expense or the lack of educational opportunities in skilled occupations and trades.

The mission where I grew up not only trained nurses, lab techs, teachers and pastors but also employed people in the every day running of the mission, its physical infrastructure and in producing food for the mission. At the time, professional missionaries were the model used for the church. Now, so many missionaries are volunteers. They may lack the opportunity to create relationships, train people, employ them and in other ways become part of the community.

The development industry is famous for swooping in with their expensive 4-wheel drive SUV’s for a time-limited project and then leaving without adequately addressing the issues in the area in a holistic way that provides long-term benefit.


What an interesting article! Thank you!!
I´ve always thought that is is quite easy to go there, and leave some stuff, give away some items that makes you feel good. But really fighting for justice is much harder. And it can even be done here at home, even in our own church.

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Do “Volunteer short term” Missionaries have to go through an Orientation to Missions Class prior to going to learn the do’s and dont’s of behavior and dress while there [where ever they are going]?
At a local Baptist church here in town that works with a lot of mission groups, there is a 4-hour Orientation Class one HAS to take if one is even considering going on a mission trip. Then if one actually signs up for a specific one, there are a number of hours of orientation beyond that.
One of the things they stress is NOT coming home with empty suitcases.

Description of a visit to an orphanage in Western Sahara coupled with a commentary on the business of orphanages in Ghana in support of what voluntourism may look like elsewhere? Where are we? North Africa? What foreign language is spoken there?

Africa, to my knowledge, is a continent composed of many nations, tribes and varied colonial histories.

There is a need for skilled interns To spend at least an academic year in missions equipped with senior mentors. Tom Z.

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The orphanages described here exist in Malawi also.

The book you are looking for is “Africa Doesn’t Matter: How the West Has Failed the Poorest Continent and What We Can Do About It” ( http://www.amazon.com/Africa-Doesnt-Matter-Poorest-Continent/dp/1559708786/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1417657996&sr=8-1&keywords=africa+doesn’t+matter )

Giles is really brutally honest.

There are two areas in Africa where the West can really help

(1) Educating the educators
(2) Building the transportation infrastructure

Instead we destroy their farmers and save their weakest causing them to become on continuous burden on their society.

The trouble with doctors is they think that treating the sick is the most important thing. In reality it is making the healthy more productive, if necessary by letting the sick die.

But Western sensibilities/stupidities don’t allow such pragmatism.

And yes, the Christian mission trips are a massive waste of money aimed at giving Western Christian’s an emotional high while doing very little for the locals.

Please tell me you are kidding. The death of “the weak and sick” is as much a tragedy to people in poverty as it is to you and me in the developed world.

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I am currently reading “The Last Gentleman Explorer”, the autobiography of an English man who joined the Hudson Bay Company circa 1930 and went to the northern-most coastal trading post in Hudson Bay.

He recounts an interview with an elderly Eskimo (the polite term at the time) woman, and her description of the standard Eskimo practice of leaving the very sick and infirm elderly behind to die when they moved camp.

The death of such is necessary because the society is living so close to the edge that spending resources to stretch their lives will shorten others, possibly leading to the demise of the whole clan.

Our inability to take such pragmatic decisions is the sign of a wealthy society.

Our inability to choose wisely where to spend our resources is the sign of a society which is failing to educate its members to think clearly.

My father, currently in his mid '80’s, is recommending I read “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End”. My daughter is a surgical resident who has recently been doing geriatric oncology rotations. Both tell the same message - we are spending too much keeping people alive rather than giving them comfortable endings.

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This sounds like it is a problem in the developed world, specifically the Unites States. Where medical care is not available a bout of diarrhea may mean death for an infant. A visit to the dentist my save someone years of pain. Antimalarials could save millions of lives in their prime productive years. Babies are malnourished, women die in childbirth. Infants die of preventable disease. This is not about putting too many resources into people, it is about providing a basic level of care.

Where quality of life depends on living to provide for your family or having them destitute then there should be no discussion whether that person needs medical care.


Christian mission trips a massive waste of money.
I happen to disagree that this is so. I think it has more to do on why it is done, and how it is conducted.
It should be done with the plan to have the most lasting effect on the people group being visited. It is true it should not be an EGO TRIP for the persons going. The group needs to understand the culture and the ability to function after the group leaves.
Our Priest is a former Pharmacist and goes with a group every year in Jan to Honduras. He manages the medications for the group. They also do dental work. They want to take a LOT of tooth brushes down this year. He hopes to take 2 suitcases full himself from donations. While down there they see a lot of work injuries, machete injuries.
My Sunday church has been involved with an elementary school in Trouan, Haiti, 25 mi SE of Port-au-Prince for the last 10 years. What began as a 1000$ a year project is now almost 50,000$ [not part of the church budget]. Almost 300 kids, some who walk 3 hours to and 3 hours home. Many the ONLY meal is at Supper in the evening. So we fund a lunch program for them. Provide money to have uniforms made by local people. We do send school supplies down as they are not easily available on the open market. We pay for 12 teacher salaries. After the earthquake we had to replace the school, and purchased one similar to SDA one day church buildings and the company went down and erected it with the help of the locals. 2 years ago another church in GA, 2 in VA, and 1 in NC heard about our project and have joined us and now we are developing a Vocational program in the “high school” age kids with teachers. We are helping with a Goat Program. Give a family a female goat and the first live one is given back to the Goat Program to give away to another family. We put in solar panels for electricity to operate the computers and lights in the class rooms. We send a delegation down 3 to 4 times a year for 1. to check on how our money is being used, 2. Provide teacher training sessions. 3. To see if we can facilitate meeting other needs not previously identified. 3. Maintain contact with Administration and reinforce the need for receiving an accounting every month of funds spent and how. We do a lot of email contact with Administration. Sometimes telephone. At one monthly meeting with our group, the Administrator in charge called and said Hello. We have had him to St Francis several times so we could meet him and he could meet all of us. This began as just a Sunday School class project after studying Acts. But as you can see it has taken on a life of its own, but is a member driven project and NOT a church project as such.
We have a Volunteer Committee called Outreach which the church organized. All the community programs we are involved in comes through ideas from this group. We are involved in over half dozen community groups, many of them needing man hours or resources we can collect. We are represented on the Boards of several of them. Most of our Community involvement is member inspired and member initiated, NOT Pastor or Church Board initiated. And that is why it stays such a strong program. Pastors change, Board members change, but Community involvement, Haitian involvement is not affected. The members RUN the church. Should we have no Pastor, no Church Board, the member RUN church would continue on, continue to develop, continue to maintain close knit friendships through working together.

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You growing up on the “Front Lines” I am sure you have seen where taking inventory of a people group and then making some small changes in their life style has greatly enhanced their productivity, perhaps has reduced infant-child mortality numbers, increased longevity and productivity even to old age.
Prevention is a huge part of Cure.
I see where an organized group of Volunteers can sometimes do a project that cannot be done by the staff working with some people groups. That is why I take issue with Bevin’s blanket statement that Christian mission trips are a massive waste of money, and is only providing an “emotional high” for the participants.
A group of Laurelbrook Academy alumni a number of years ago [about 30] went to Cayman Brac to redo the pastor’s house. We worked for 2 weeks, began our morning work at 5am to 2pm [because of the heat factor in the afternoon]. It was NOT an emotional high. It was work! But, at the end of the 2 weeks we were proud of the improved living quarters we had produced with collective effort.
There isnt much the US can do with government officials mis-management of their government and moneys that come into the coffers. The inability of the people to change their government officials from selfish self-serving persons. Government mis-management and gross mis-use of government money is seen in ALL cultures including the US. Even in the US we elect new faces in government and things continue the same.
The only thing we can do is Remember this. I can’t do everything, but I can do something. Livingston, Florence Nightengale, Mother Theresa, Gandhi all did not plan on what they accomplished. They just protested in their little corner. And that is what we have to do. Make a difference with what we see where we are. That is TRUE Christian Volunteerism. When the challenge gets too big, invite others to join in helping to make a change.
It might even call for making a Mission Trip.


Choosing the right medical care to give is a problem everywhere, because you are dealing with emotional people who argue (usually) that the money should be spent on their children rather than someone else’s, regardless of the real net benefit to society.

Providing a basic level of care is good IF it is evenly spread across all the necessary areas. It makes no sense to keep infants alive so that they can starve or die in warfare as teens. It makes no sense to grow a huge populace during “seven years of feast” so that they all die in the subsequent “seven years of famine”. It makes no sense to invest lots of money in coping with diseases that should be prevented more cheaply.

Unless, of course, you are the person being paid to provide the care, in which case suddenly it makes sense to spend millions on transporting a baby from Africa and giving it expensive medical treatment at your hospital, rather than sending a few thousand dollars to Africa to train teachers.

Thank you, Heather, for a wonderful article. You are wise beyond your years.

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A brilliantly written piece. Than you Heather.

This is something I’ve struggled with for some time. I cringe when I see people who travel to Africa post selfies with destitute children. Those look more like trophies of having achieved a higher spiritual plateau of “service” than real, long term concern for the children. They soon leave to go back to the comfort of their homes and people are left holding the bag. No real change has occurred.

For the last three years our family has sponsored two girls in Brazil. The money we sent has helped put them through a Christian education. This seems to be more appealing and coherent than quick, rather condescending “missionary” trips to and fro. By the way, we chose an organization with less overhead than ADRA.

Again, thanks for shining a light on this problem.


Thank you so much for this article. I spent almost 6 years as a missionary from my church to an orphanage in Haiti. I was there for 5 months before I even realized that most of our kids had parents and some of them worked for our organization! Surely, with full-time work, these parents could take their children home and we could scholarship their education at our school, right? Nope. Absolutely ZERO work was done to reunify families or attempt any social work. No effort was made except to create and sustain dependency. Thank you for this important post.

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