Charity tourism: Good intentions shouldn’t be exploited

Voluntourism International Charity Day

Take a step back and ask if you’re doing more harm than good. Source: Shutterstock.

VOLUNTEER TOURISM, otherwise known as voluntourism and a form of charity tourism has exploded in popularity. By 2014, more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists were spending about US$2 billion each year on charity trips.

While it’s nice to be able to give back to those we deem less fortunate (it is a “feel good” activity, after all), we should also to take a step back and ask if you’re doing more harm than good.

Start with asking yourself if the organization you’re “working” for is ethical or trustworthy.

Voluntourism, one of the fastest growing travel trends in recent years, is at risk of becoming a business, exploited by illegitimate organizations which claim to be humanitarian groups.

In some places in Asia, voluntourism is fuelling the orphanage crisis. For example, in Cambodia, little children holding placards reading, “Support our orphans” at favorite tourist haunts are a common sight.

Using wide, innocent eyes and heartwrenching tales of abandonment, these children are capable of luring unsuspecting travelers into making a donation or volunteering at their orphanage.

But what lies behind the placards, eyes, and tales?

Cambodian Girl Smiling

A young Cambodian girl smiling in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Source: Shutterstock.

“Those ‘orphans’ might have been bought from impoverished parents, coerced from loving families or simply rented for the night. An official study found just a quarter of children in these so-called orphanages have actually lost both parents,” The Guardian reported.

“And these private ventures are proliferating fast: the numbers increased by 65 percent in just three years.”

Enthusiastic travelers who don’t know any better, especially those who are not at that very moment present in that country, rely on social media (such as Facebook pages) and websites for information, not knowing that more often than not they’re purposely filled with pictures of happy children, their misery masked behind their smiles.

The grotesque exploitation is real.

NGO group Phnom Penh Cambodia

A group of volunteers in from an NGO walking surrounded by children in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Source: Shutterstock.

Last year, The Guardian highlighted Sinet Chan, one of the many children who was used and abused at a rundown Cambodian orphanage.

At nine years old, she was made to sing and dance for tourists who are armed with cameras and the best intentions. But the reality is she was being starved, having to hunt for mice to eat for survival.

Worst of all, the orphanage’s director beat and raped her repeatedly over the course of several years. She was also forced to work in his rice paddies and farms without pay, and her belongings (donated clothes and toys) would be sold at the market.

“I thought it might be a good place. Maybe I could have enough food to eat, have a chance to go to school. But actually what I imagined is wrong,” The Guardian quoted Chan as saying.

“He dressed us up looking poor, so the visitors see us, they feel pity for us, and they donate more. But they don’t really know what was going on inside the orphanage.”

Cambodia Orphanage

An unidentified kid playing at the orphanage at Tonle Sap lake, near Siem Reap, Cambodia. Source: Shutterstock.

The desire to want to help the less fortunate in a not-so-developed world is human nature and a good virtue to have. And year on year, aside from travelers, throngs of students spend their gap year volunteering abroad.

But that desire also has a dark side, and you could be funneling more money to these cruel theatres that exploit children. So it’s always important to do prior research to ensure your volunteer organization is not a scam.

Get online, consult other travelers and ask as many questions as possible, and read reviews. Establish direct contact with the organization and get details on where your contribution is going or what it will do for the people you’re helping. Ask for statistics for the number of years in operation – legit organizations should be transparent about their metrics of success.

If you’re still keen on helping, here are some organizations you can trust:


UK non-profit organization Globalteer was established in 2006 and was given full charity status by June 2007, fully accredited by the Charities Commission of England and Wales (1119706).

Its Cambodia Clean Water Project is the gateway to the Khmer culture, where you’ll assist the local staff making Bio Sand Filters to prevent illness and save lives by giving rural communities access to clean drinking water.

The project will take you to the town of Siem Reap in Northern Cambodia, home to the Unesco World Heritage-listed Angkor Wat temple complex.

To date, Globalteer has placed more than 4,000 volunteers on community-focused and wildlife conservation projects in Southeast Asia and South America.

In doing so, it has invested more than US$5 million in its charitable objectives.

Visit Globalteer’s website for more information.

International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ)

From its start in 2007, IVHQ has been offering a variety of programs across more than 40 destinations in Asia, the Pacific, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

Its Kerala Special Needs Care Project in India will take you to the South Asian country where you will help disabled children learn English and assist them with physical movement exercises and basic sensory activities.

No experience is required to work with the children (ages two through 18), but you’ll receive intensive IVHQ online training before your departure and once in-country, you’ll be guided by IVHQ local staff 24/7

To date, IVHQ has placed more than 80,000 volunteers around the world on programs that support education and childcare, conservation and wildlife, community building, medical care, and more.

Visit IVHQ’s website for more information.

Raleigh International

Founded in 1984, Raleigh International offers volunteer programs for youth and young adults with a focus on clean water and hygiene, natural resources and sustainability, and community building.

If you choose Raleigh International’s Sabah, Malaysia expedition, you’ll be given the opportunity live and work alongside an indigenous island community while building your leadership and teamwork skills.

While you’re there, you’ll also have the chance to go hiking and camping in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain.

To date, 400,000 volunteers have traveled with Raleigh International and the number continues to grow.

Visit Raleigh International’s website for more information.

CARE International

Since 1945, CARE International has been a major international humanitarian agency that works around the world to save lives, fight poverty and help women and girls fulfill their potential.

CARE works in 94 countries around the world, implementing 950 poverty-fighting development and humanitarian aid projects.

To date, they’ve reached more than 62 million people directly and 216 million people indirectly.

While CARE is unable to accommodate volunteers looking to travel overseas, some of its members do have internship opportunities that are posted on their websites.

Visit CARE International’s website for more information.

Global Vision International (GVI)

Established 1998, GVI runs programs in 21 locations, in 13 countries around the world, each manned by their staff and aligned to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) as well as the objectives of local partners.

One of the projects you can sign up for with GVI will take you to Luang Prabang in Laos where you can volunteer to teach English to Buddhist novice monks.

You can also sign up for GVI’s volunteer program that will bring you to Fiji, where you will be able to work in sustainable community development initiatives.

To date, has hosted over 25,000 program participants (and counting) and operates its own projects.

Visit GVI’s website for more information.