Naomi Law discusses her experiences volunteering in Sri Lanka, and how to avoid being a ‘voluntourist’ 


Targeting the socially conscious, wanderlusting student, voluntourism is the latest craze in the globetrotting industry. Seemingly, it allows those burdened by a white-Messiah complex and an extensive budget to experience ‘exotic’ cultures – all while contributing to lesser-developed communities across South America, Asia and Africa. Increasingly, however, the motives behind voluntourism have been called into question.

In a university fascinated with stereotyping, the concept of the ‘gap year and overseas labour’ has become synonymous with an image of the privately educated spending a petty few days abroad. Most likely, they are changing their Facebook picture to a photo of them surrounded by African children, sporting a self-satisfied grin. If designer watches and sports cars signify material status, stories of embracing the discomforts of poverty signals superiority of character.


Regardless of these anti-humanitarian downfalls, I spent my summer volunteering in Sri Lanka with the organisation SLV. I worked in psychiatric hospitals, planning and running rehabilitation sessions for the mentally and criminally insane, teaching in schools for children with special educational needs and mentoring children from underprivileged backgrounds. Through this experience, I believe that I found the earnest answer to volunteering abroad.

Evidently, before applying for this placement, I had several preconceptions. Volunteer agencies charge on average £1,000 without travel fare. A lengthy debate could occur regarding the destination of this money, yet I wish to focus on its function. Shouldn’t such a large sum of money not be gifted directly to organisations? Why couldn’t they distribute it meaningfully to their cause as opposed to flights and living costs?

Another issue frequently raised in this discussion is the truth that children, the ill, and the poor are not tourist attractions. UNICEF has found that a high turnover of caregivers actually has an extremely negative impact on vulnerable children in poor countries. Too often, individuals will return to their fabricated western life and post on social media about the life changing experience they had caring for the unloved. In actuality, the children are alone once again, deepening previous attachment issues.

However, I would like to express how my pre-conceptions became mis-conceptions. In no shape or form was my experience volunteering ‘touristic’. My six weeks in Asia were spent sitting in an overpopulated hospital with sewage leaking onto the floor, talking to men so immobile from electroshock therapy they were forced into contentment with lying in their own waste after soiling themselves. They were spent desperately attempting for a considerable number of hours to distract a child with ADHD who has been exiled from the education system to stop crying. They were spent catching public buses for 2 hours in gruelling heat in order to blow bubbles in an abominable hospital to a woman so sedated that blinking was her only means of communication.

But to see an eighty year old grandmother, institutionalised for Parkinson’s disease, develop motor skills sufficient enough to make her own pasta jewellery, made all of this worthwhile. I watched as men on a ward for the criminally insane laughed and danced to “The Beatles“. I smiled as I listened to a child with down syndrome say his ABC’s for the first time. I don’t think one will ever comprehend true appreciation until they have had these experiences.

So how does one avoid these pre-mentioned pitfalls when making the choice to volunteer abroad? From my experience in Sri Lanka, I learned to seek an authentic cultural experience, and to leave western inhibition behind. I lived with a local family, utilised local transport, ate local cuisine and practiced buddhist rituals.? Be ethical with your finances. Thankfully, my concerns regarding the correct use of the funding I contributed were suppressed. After having been ostracised from their own societies,  the communities we worked with expressed gratitude that we chose to use our money to spend time with them.

Stereotypical apathy undoubtedly exists in the voluntary world, but in my experience, great contribution can be made with the correct amount of dedication, energy and time.


Naomi Law