Volunteering Abroad: Is voluntourism a good thing?

Updated: Feb 12, 2019

Recently an article was posted in The Guardian ( regarding voluntourism. If you are unaware, voluntourism is the act of travelling somewhere to volunteer for a week, do your do-goodedness, and then leave, never to return (to that same locale) again. The article, entitled The business of voluntourism: do western do-gooders actually do harm? suggests (in case it was TL;DR for you) that travelling to volunteer can actually spark more harm than good. The author of the article makes the case that while volunteers travel that voluntourism sells some sort of dream - a transformative or life changing experience – to the volunteer, that often doesn’t actually benefit the people they are there to help in any real way. In some cases, it even creates more problems than it seeks to solve, including children with living parents being placed in orphanages, and capitalizing on free labor in the name of raising money instead of providing jobs for local laborers. There is an adage that goes something like: Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will not go hungry. The Guardian article is suggesting that despite our kindheartedness and best efforts, we are just giving the needy some fish. The real value of voluntourism is to the volunteer.

It is a troubling thought, especially as we at the Build Your Smile Dental Foundation are so committed to helping those who are under-served. Yes, while what we do is significantly different from what many charities seek to do, which often includes physical labor, how are our efforts really impacting the communities we help? Afterall, giving people with no teeth new teeth is something that requires a specific skill set and is something that can uniquely transform a life – from the ability to eat solid foods again to allowing a wide, toothy grin to light up one’s face. As we embark on this new journey at the Foundation, how can we differentiate ourselves from these other charities and create positive change that is long-lasting – both in terms of the care patients receive, and the care they can receive when we are not present in a boots-on-the-ground capacity?

When the key players at the Build Your Smile Dental Foundation were asked this question (and were asked to read the article) they all had the same response. “What we do is different because the actual physical dental work is only one half of what we do.” Education is a key component of our work. While we are creating dentures or implants for patients in countries like Uganda or Costa Rica, we are also training the local dental practitioners to work at our standard of care. Beyond this, we collaborate with the dental schools in Uganda to host a several-day seminar where we again teach North American dental standards and practices to a room of eager young minds who have gathered from around the country. We also support an academic grant which provides for one lucky recipient annually to come to Canada and attend a lecture series given by leaders in the dental field, accompanied with a clinical hands-on component.

Though, we must ask ourselves – ‘are we doing enough?’ How can we ensure that we are doing the best possible work and adequately supporting change on the ground? That is the key to out mission and our motivation as a newly formed foundation. We do not seek to implement ‘band-aid’ solutions nor do we want to inflate our own egos and confidence. How do we know that we are doing what is right and that we are doing enough?

For now, we are fortunate to be able to see the education we provide be put into action which gives us hope that we are on the right track. We receive before and after photos from the people we have the pleasure of training in Uganda, and the results speak for themselves – and I am not only referring to the quality of the restorations provided. What is more important, at least to me as I write this post, is the size of the smile on the patient’s face – a smile they may never have thought they would get to wear again. We can ponder how best to serve those who need our help, and I’m sure over time we will learn and grow and evolve. But one thing is for certain – at least for now. While the jury is out on the value of voluntourism, action is always better than inaction, and we are proud of the fact that we can make an impact where otherwise there would be none.

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Photography by Nathalie Crown

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