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Are travel philanthropists doing more harm than good?

Learning songs at the Tumanitenda Community Camp in The Gambia. Marina Novelli, Author provided

It seems like the best of both worlds. People using their hard-earned vacation time to give something back to those worse off than themselves. At its finest, travel philanthropy is seen as a form of direct development assistance – a benign initiative flowing from the travel industry and travellers into conservation initiatives, community projects and philanthropic organisations.

As Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai commented at a conference in Tanzania in 2008:

Travel philanthropy was born out of the frustration with conventional aid and ineffective philanthropic giving, as a form of development assistance flowing from the travel industry and travellers directly into conservation initiatives, community projects and philanthropic organisations.

The notion that one can “do good” by “giving back” while engaging in leisure or travel is an extremely attractive proposition. However, the reality is that we often fail miserably to fully understand our role as individuals travelling into unknown lands.


Philanthropy has shifted from being the preserve of the rich and famous to one of ordinary citizens interested in sharing their more modest wealth. Springing from the consequent democratisation of charitable gift-giving and from the growth of international travel and tourism, travel philanthropy is embedded into an increasing worry, or we might say “guilt”, about the socio-economic welfare of those living in less-privileged conditions around the world. So how can we ensure the intention to do good while travelling has a positive outcome?

P2P - Meeting the ALKALO at Tumanitenda Community Camp - The Gambia. Author own collection, Author provided

In my research into the ways in which different types of travel philanthropy can facilitate mutually beneficial exchanges between hosts and guests, I have found that it is a growing niche within the broader field of philanthropy. My research in 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa has highlighted that it can share much with strategic, social entrepreneurship and social justice philanthropy, but can also exhibit tonalities of traditional philanthropy, at times leading to dependency and other related sustainability issues.

The giving of time and money can be the core purpose of the tourism experience, such as in conservation holidays. It can also be an incidental consequence of travelling to locations affected by poverty or major health and environmental problems; a tourist might be inspired to sponsor a school place or decide to assist communities affected by HIV/AIDS, or species in danger of extinction.

Geography of compassion

Tourism has somehow become a vehicle to channel acts of giving between international visitors, who perceive themselves as being more fortunate than others, and those who live in more precarious conditions.

However, there are doubts about whether travel philanthropy actually translates into effective and equitable development, or whether its expansion has caused what Mary Mostafanezhad from New Zealand’s University of Otago calls a “geography of compassion”, with associated problems of aid dependency, a worsened poverty cycle and delivering ambiguous evidence on its sustainability and impacts.

Clearly, there is a risk that even the most well-intentioned traveller can end up doing more harm than good.

Problems exist when the goal of altruism, the pursuit of individual gain and the desire for social status become blurred motivators behind the act of giving and volunteering. The boom of so-called orphanage tourism is a disturbing example, criticised for promoting voyeurism and encouraging unscrupulous practices.

A hand up?, CC BY

There is a warning in the idea of “voluntourism” which since the 1980s has sent individuals with particular skills to volunteer in developing countries. It has proved so popular that it has ballooned into a commercial tourism product in its own right, now worth about $2 billion annually. Every year, armies of westerners – usually young and white – descend on countries in Africa and Asia and tour operators often end up manufacturing work for these volunteers to do.

Facebook fodder

While it allows the participant to beef up their résumés – or add a feel-good photo to their Facebook profile – it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re making any meaningful difference to the local community.

CharityBox. Marina Novelli, Author provided

I recall visiting newly built schools funded by well-intentioned philanthropists who had visited remote rural villages in Namibia, Tanzania and Swaziland. They were turned into empty shells with no teachers as the local government could not afford to employ qualified teachers, or relying on the service of unqualified volunteers from the West. Worse still, I saw schools being painted every two to three weeks at the arrival of a new batch of willing volunteers.

In the view of such criticism, identifying and implementing sustainable forms of travel philanthropy can be challenging, but not impossible.

Amy Scarth, an expert in tourism and international development and director of volunteer tourism firm Big Beyond, urges people to leave the “honourable” tourists alone and focus any criticisms on careless organisations. She argues that it is no crime for the volunteers to get something out of the experience themselves, but she also calls for a focus on longer-term “human impact” that reduces the need for external support, rather than a short-term cash injection.

The University of Brighton is involved with projects such as the Peer2Peer Capacity Building in Tourism students’ initiative in The Gambia which seeks to move away from traditional philanthropy and make the process more about an equal exchange of knowledge than about the givers and recipients of largesse.

Local participants get training in niche tourism product enhancement, business planning and entrepreneurship development, while those visiting benefit from local knowledge, indispensable for the completion of their final-year project work at the university. For a change, power relations are shifted, whereby those “helping” are not just those visiting, but those visited. It is a “trade-plus-aid” form of philanthropy where participants offer far more than just fees for their travel and accommodation, and follow fair trade principles and practices.

Travel philanthropy can be an unpredictable form of giving. There are clear risks of inappropriate practices and interrupted projects. What we have learnt is that if philanthropy is to benefit local communities in developing destinations, it should have a long-term plan agreed and implemented in partnership with local players. And it should provide what the community (not the donor) wants and needs. Lastly, it should aim to become sustainable, whether it focuses on an individual scholarship, aims to help a broader community through school or clinic infrastructure, or is a combination of the two.

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