Privilege and Power

Can Tourism and Altruism Mix? Being Conscientious While Volunteering Abroad

This blog is part of a series where we unpack our Backpacktivist Manifesto using video, articles, music, and other forms of media. We invite you to critically reflect with us on what it truly means to be an ethical traveler.

A backpacktivist is conscientious. We are guests in a place others call home. Adhering to local traditions and customs allows us to understand the value of cultures different from our own. It opens the door for a greater understanding of our similarities, not just our differences.


The following is an excerpt from Benjamin Siechel, a teacher based in Halifax, who succinctly and thoughtfully uncovers the issues behind volunteer travel, or what he calls, “altourism”.  “I’ve Come to Help: Can Tourism and Altruism Mix?” is an insightful article that covers attitudes, money issues (between guest and host), and lack of understanding of complexity of local problems as ethical minefields that every international volunteer should consider before working abroad.

Imagine arriving at work one day and finding a new co-worker has joined your team. He comes from abroad, and he’ll only be working with you for a little while—-after graduating from university, he wanted to come to a different country and volunteer for a spell, just to gain experience and “help out however he can.”

You are somewhat skeptical: you’ve seen this type of person before. But being the welcoming soul you are, you answer his many questions, help out with his difficulties in English, and nod politely when he talks about how things are different (better?) at home. You listen to, and half-heartedly try out, some of his new ideas for your organization, even if you think they’re off-base. You are a bit miffed that as a guest, he seems to enjoy privileged access to your boss. After a few months he leaves, and leaves behind a half-done project which never gets picked up.

Now consider the myriad programs you’ve heard of in which people from Canada, the US or elsewhere travel to the Majority World to intern or volunteer, often combined with academic study or research. Right now in villages and shantytowns around the world, enthusiastic young people are teaching English, volunteering in orphanages, and planting community gardens; while groups of middle-aged church folk hand out medical supplies, build schools, and assemble sewage systems…

…Such programs generally invoke thoughts of generosity and sacrifice, friendships, partnerships, and deeply meaningful personal awakenings to the realities of global inequality. But what other impacts and implications might these programs have? Are they truly an effective means of achieving their implied or stated goals—-that is, improving the lot of the poor, or just making the world a slightly better place? Or, more provocatively, are they simply a glorified form of tourism wrapped in a veneer of altruism—-call it altourism, or development tourism—-with few real benefits for receiving communities?” 

Read the full article here. 


Questions for Thought…

  1. Do you think volunteer travel can be done in a respectful, responsible and ethical manner? What are some ways to ensure that? How can we curtail its negative impacts?
  2. Knowing the potential pitfalls of volunteer travel, how will you act respectfully and conscientiously on your OG program?
  3. Why do you think Operation Groundswell is different from your standard big-box volunteer company?