Voluntourism: Helpful or Harmful?

Voluntourism: Helpful or Harmful?
Kelly Edmondson
Jan 12, 2017

The term voluntourism was coined in the past decade to describe the current vibe associated with short-term missions, in particular, missions trips involving some form of community service. These groups are generally composed of young students in high school, college, or graduate school who travel to developing countries on a temporary basis as a way to both explore new cultures and help the local people. As the next generation of twenty-somethings pack their bags and head overseas, criticism from opponents of voluntourism continues to gain momentum. The arguments are simple:

  1. Using foreign workers to do local projects takes job opportunities from nationals. Imagine that a school building is needed in a town in Ethiopia. A team arrives from the United States to build the school from start to finish. Although supplies are purchased from local businesses, skilled national laborers are replaced with free foreign laborers who do the job and leave town. The local skilled laborers miss an opportunity to work for wages to support themselves and their families.
  2. Using foreign workers to do local projects takes ownership away from nationals. Imagine the above school scenario again. The local skilled laborers not only missed out on the opportunity to work for wages, they also missed out on the opportunity to work for ownership of the local school building. Pride in one’s community is a natural by-product of community work.
  3. Most volunteers do not possess adequate skills for the overall project. A 16 year-old high school student can most likely be trained to do certain tasks adequately, but a skilled laborer with months or years of experience can complete those tasks in a more thorough, efficient manner. It is the simple argument of “you get what you pay for.”
  4. Short-term missions trips do not produce sustainable community results. Spending the summer between college semesters volunteering at a feeding center in Panama provides no long-term solution to the hungry people.

The staff at Medical Missions Outreach (MMO) supports and encourages short-term missions. In fact, the MMO model of ministry relies on volunteer groups traveling for short periods of time on a constant, rotating basis. Despite criticism to voluntourism in general, the following are reasons why MMO advocates for this philosophy in missions:

  1. MMO uses both foreign and national volunteers as well as paid workers to run each clinic. While doctors and nurses from all over the US and Canada commit to working with MMO in each country, there are also local healthcare professionals who volunteer their skills to work alongside the MMO team. Local translators are paid to work in the clinics and local caterers are hired to provide team meals. Many medications are purchased from community pharmacies and left-over supply donations are given to local healthcare professionals. Patients are referred to community physicians for follow-up; thus a long-term relationship is established, benefitting both patients and physicians.
  2. MMO works alongside the local church members to serve the community. The local church is of utmost importance to MMO. Teams are not brought to work in a country unless they are invited and hosted by a local church. The reason is simplemedical work and spiritual care may be offered on a one-time basis; but to see the best outcome, the local church people must be willing and able to follow up on each patient treated. Partnering with a local church leads to church growth both numerically and spiritually. New believers grow; older believers are challenged and encouraged.
  3. MMO teams consist of licensed healthcare professionals in good standing with their respective practice boards. All licenses, diplomas, and resumes (or CVs) are provided to the local Minister of Health in each country, and team members practice within their scope of practice. Students practice within a supervised role, and non-medical volunteers are trained to do only duties that would be acceptable in the United States.
  4. Medical missions produces sustainable results in many areas. Biblically speaking, believers are called to go forth and make disciples. By sharing the gospel with all patients that enter the clinic and then following up on these patients for baptism and discipleship through the local church, the local church itself is strengthened. Sustainability is also achieved through healthcare education. Patient education empowers individuals to care for themselves properly while following up with local healthcare providers for continued treatment.
By sharing the gospel with all patients that enter the clinic and then following up on these patients for baptism and discipleship through the local church, the local church itself is strengthened.

MMO team members experience professional and spiritual growth through serving others, working alongside national church members, and observing missions in action. To date, at least eight individuals have surrendered to serve Christ on the mission field after serving on a team with MMO. At least 20 individuals have pursued advanced educational opportunities after serving on a team with MMO. Overall, MMO strives to impact the world both home and abroad through the very effective method of voluntourism.


Kelly Edmondson, Medical Director of Medical Missions Outreach,   graduated from Pensacola Christian College with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) in 1995, then from Troy University with Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Board Certified as Family Nurse Practitioner in 2005. Kelly has experience in both Pediatrics and Urgent Care that gives her insight into cases MMO sees on the foreign field. She began medical mission work in 2003 and has become knowledgeable of the challenges of health care and community wellness in developing nations. Kelly is committed to training future health care workers, as she precepts nursing and nurse practitioner students in the US and abroad. Kelly’s leadership at MMO brigades provides a spirit of professionalism and efficacy that raise the bar and set a standard for good provider practices and patient education even in very remote areas.