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Voluntourism hinders community development

  • 01 June 2018


Voluntourism has emerged in the last decade as a movement that gives people the opportunity to 'do good' in developing countries while on holiday.

More and more, school leavers are being invited to participate in 'life-changing' experiences where they build houses in Cambodia, or volunteer for a week in a Vietnamese orphanage.

These opportunities are attractive to graduates of the Catholic school system in particular, who understand a faith-inspired call to serve others. Nonetheless when presented with such opportunities we should exercise caution and informed discernment.

Populorum Progessio, the 1967 papal encyclical on the Development of Peoples, makes clear that human development needs to be primarily enacted by those who are part of a culture.

This is an expression of one of the core Catholic Social Teachings — the principle of subsidiarity; that people who are going to be affected by a decision, action or goodwill should be consulted about it.

Caritas Australia has developed a resource that reflects this principle, called 'Just Visiting?'. It explains why it's important, when we enter a community, to sit at the feet of the people and learn from them first, instead of imposing a western vision of what people need.

Caritas doesn't send missionaries overseas, and only participates in immersion programs that are educative and mutually beneficial.


"Well-educated young people would be much better placed to use their schooling and further education to give challenge to the structures that keep poverty on our global agenda." — Megan Bourke


An example is recounted by Brendan Joyce, who led a Caritas immersion to Cambodia in 2014. In his blog, he enunciates each of the core principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and shares how Caritas' partners in Cambodia work with local communities to train and empower them make their own decisions about what is needed.

'Village committees were established and trained in decision-making, minute taking, accounting and reporting; these were communities empowered to be the architects of their own futures,' he wrote.

Maryknoll Sister Len Montiel has spent many years working in Cambodia and, like many others who work in development contexts, sees value in the right kind of volunteer outreach.

She cautions, however, that if a person comes back from an immersion trip and their main conclusion is 'I am so thankful for what I have, because they have so little', they have missed the point.

When opportunities are presented to spend a week visiting an orphanage, constructing a chapel, or building houses for the poor, it's