Why We Need to Uncover White Savior Logic of Volunteer Tourism

Volunteers at Elephant Nature Park

Yearly, around 1.6 million tourists, most of whom are young, white and from Western countries, go on holidays to volunteer in the Global South.[1] These so-called volunteer tourists, or voluntourists, book their trips through organizations that claim to promote the welfare of their host communities but are criticized by some as a form of white saviorism. What is white saviorism and how is applying the concept useful to the host communities of volunteer tourists in the Global South?

Scholars on white saviorism criticize volunteer tourism by alleging that the primary motivation of the practice is often for the tourist to construct a benevolent image of herself, while the actual effects of the volunteer activities are secondary or even harmful.[2] Thereby, volunteer tourists, who are mostly white, implicitly portray themselves as the developed saviors of the radicalized non-white people that supposedly need the help of the white volunteers to develop. This binary that contrasts active, Western volunteers against passive locals is apparent on some volunteer tourism organization’s websites. There, the locals are sometimes presented as “needy” and without agency of their own.[3] Some activities of volunteer tourism organizations further reinforce that binary. Andrea Freidus, who is an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, found a particularly illustrative example in her research on a volunteer tourism project in Malawi. In the project, tourists oversee the distribution of food to poor locals, while the food is wholly paid for by local initiatives.[4] The problem with these acts is that they render locals as passive and allow voluntourists to believe that their external help is needed for local communities to develop.[5]

Can uncovering logics of white saviorism help those local communities? I argue that it can and that spreading awareness about white saviorism in volunteer tourism is helpful for several reasons. Firstly, when current and future volunteer tourists learn about the concept of white saviorism, they are forced to think about the historical origins of the idea of benevolent white saviors versus dependent communities in the Global South. For instance, European colonialism was partly justified based on the claim that non-Europeans were underdeveloped and needed to be educated and developed by the white rulers.[6] Furthermore, by questioning the dichotomy of the white helpers versus passive locals, white saviorism confronts voluntourists with their own biases. Questioning their stereotypes is needed for volunteer tourists to accept the locals as independent, active actors with whom together cross-cultural cooperation can occur.[7]

Once the stereotype of locals, who need Western help to develop, is questioned, a discussion on whether and how voluntourists really aid the locals can emerge. There is evidence that many voluntourism projects focus on the tourist’s desires before the needs and desires of the host community. Volunteer tourism projects are mostly run for-profit, which means that the customers’ interests are frequently prioritized before local needs.[8] For instance, studies show that many children in orphanages have living parents.[9] But instead of trying to support their parents, volunteer tourism projects incentivize families to send their children to orphanages, where volunteers pay to help the children. This is deeply problematic because voluntourists often have limited skills and only stay at the projects for a short time, which results in them hindering work progress and completing unsatisfactory work.[10] There are certainly many voluntourism projects that are well thought out and help local communities develop by providing additional resources and skills. But the concept of white saviorism is important by highlighting that volunteer tourist projects often focus primarily on the volunteers’ needs instead of the local’s needs. In that way, those projects can harm rather than help local communities.

To tackle the issue of white saviourism, it is crucial to pressure the volunteer tourism organisations to educate their participants about the history and contemporary issues in the host country. Andrea Freidus, for instance, argues that pre-departure workshops on the local society can go a long way in keeping volunteer tourists from reinforcing white saviour dynamics and help tourists find intercultural understanding. [11] The Global Brigades, a sustainable development organisation, already has such pre-departure information courses in place and requires its volunteers to read about white saviourism.[12] To ensure that their projects are helpful, volunteer organisations should also make sure to better match volunteers’ skills with the local community’s needs.[13]

In sum, this article is not meant to imply that volunteer tourism in general reinforces white saviourism. There are many organisations and volunteer tourists that help local communities develop and do so with the right intentions. Yet, there is considerable evidence that some organisations and volunteer tourists implicitly reinforce binaries of Western, white saviours and dependent communities in the Global South. It is crucial to uncover these implicit logics in order for volunteer tourists to recognise local communities in the Global South as independent actors. Hopefully, uncovering the logics will lead to better cross-cultural understanding and volunteer tourism projects that primarily serve the needs of the locals and not the volunteers.

Works Cited

Bandyopadhyay, R., & Patil, V. (2017). ‘The white woman’s burden’ – the racialized, gendered politics of volunteer tourism. Tourism Geographies, 19(4), 644-657.

Freidus, A. L. (2017). Unanticipated outcomes of voluntourism among Malawi’s orphans. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 25(9), 1306-1321.

Guttentag, D. A. (2009). The possible negative impacts of volunteer tourism. International journal of tourism research, 11(6), 537-551.

Kawas, R. & Colbert, S. (2020). We Are Not The Saviors of This Story: Addressing White Saviorism Together. Retrieved from https://blog.globalbrigades.org/addressing-white-saviorism/

Rosenberg, T. (2018). The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/sep/13/the-business-of-voluntourism-do-western-do-gooders-actually-do-harm

Wearing, S., Mostafanezhad, M., Nguyen, N., Nguyen, T., Than Nguyen, & McDonald, M. (2018). ‘Poor children on Tinder and their Barbie Saviours: towards a feminist political economy of volunteer tourism. Leisure Studies, 37(5), 500-514.

Zeddies, M., & Millei, Z. (2015). “It takes a global village”: Troubling discourses of global citizenship in United Planet’s voluntourism. Global Studies of Childhood, 5(1), 100- 111.


[1] Bandyopadhyay, Patil, “Volunteer tourism and ‘The White Man’s Burden’”, 645.

[2] Bandyopadhyay, Patil, “Volunteer tourism and ‘The White Man’s Burden’”, 650.

[3] Zeddies, Millei, “Troubling discourses in United Planet’s voluntourism”, 105.

[4] Freidus, “Unanticipated outcomes of voluntourism”, 1313.

[5] Wearing et al., “Towards a feminist political economy of volunteer tourism”, 503.

[6] Bandyopadhyay, Patil, “the racialized, gendered politics of volunteer tourism”, 650.

[7] Freidus, “Unanticipated outcomes of voluntourism”, 1319.

[8] Guttentag, “The possible negative impacts of volunteer tourism”, 541.

[9] Rosenberg, “The business of volunturism.”

[10] Guttentag, “The possible negative impacts of volunteer tourism”, 541.

[11] Freidus, “Unanticipated outcomes of voluntourism”, 1318-1319.

[12] Kawa, Colbert, “Addressing White Saviorism Together.”

[13] Guttentag, “The possible negative impacts of volunteer tourism”, 548.