The best books about international volunteering

Who am I?

I first volunteered overseas as a teenager. Driven by an insatiable desire to change the world, I helped to found a rural development organisation, PHASE, but found myself confronted with and paralysed by the complexities of the aid world. So as not to become jaded, I since shifted my focus to tackle what I believe to be the root causes of injustice in the world through global education, including researching and writing Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad. I now mainly work as a consultant to improve the ethical practices of volunteer organisations.


I wrote...

Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad

By Claire Bennett, Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher, Daniela Papi-Thornton

Book cover of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad

What is my book about?

Noam Chomsky described this book as “An extraordinary contribution...a manifesto for doing good well.Every year, nearly 20 million people pack their bags to volunteer overseas—yet far too many are failing to make an impact, and some are even doing more harm than good. So how can we change the way we make positive change in the world? If you want to help you must first be willing to learn.

Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad offers a powerful and transformative new approach to international volunteering. The “learning service” model helps volunteers embrace the learning side of their adventures—and discover how cultivating openness, humility, and a willingness to reflect can enhance help them do good better. It’s not a lightweight 'how-to' handbook, but a thoughtful critique, a shocking exposé, and a detailed guide to responsibly serving communities in need.

The books I picked & why

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Ours to Explore: Privilege, Power, and the Paradox of Voluntourism

By Pippa Biddle,

Book cover of Ours to Explore: Privilege, Power, and the Paradox of Voluntourism

Why this book?

This excellently researched and hot-off-the-press book delves into the roots of the phenomenon that we call “voluntourism” today, examining how colonialism, paternalistic attitudes, and even racism underlie the assumption that the rest of the world needs “help” from the west. Going right back to the eighteenth century, and pulling together the disparate threads of tourism, aid work, and missionary activity, this book seeks to unpack the dark past of the industry and explores why good intentions can end up doing harm. The book also proposes a path for the future of equitable travel that puts at its heart the overseas communities that the industry purports to help.


Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

By Conor Grennan,

Book cover of Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

Why this book?

While volunteering at an orphanage in Nepal, Conor Grennan stumbled across the dark truth that the children he had become close to were not orphans at all. In fact, they had families, and they had been trafficked into institutions that were making a profit from unsuspecting tourists and volunteers like himself...

Brutally honest and humorous at times, this book is a portrayal of the traps that international volunteers can unwittingly fall into. It uncovers a whole ecosystem of exploitation and tells the inspirational tale of the authors’ quest to end orphanage trafficking.


How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas

By Joseph Collins, Stefano DeZerega, Zahara Heckscher

Book cover of How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas

Why this book?

A comprehensive guide for potential volunteers wishing to make the world a better place. It includes first-hand stories, worksheets, and evaluative information about hundreds of volunteer organisations.

Written by veteran volunteers who are all founders of respected organizations, the book covers the whole process of volunteering, from how to decide if international volunteering is right for you, to choosing the right program, to what to do before and after you go abroad. It also covers the vital political and social contexts of people from the US volunteering abroad, and how to be aware of these factors to ensure you volunteer effectively.


A Glimpse of Eternal Snows: A Journey of Love and Loss in the Himalayas

By Jane Wilson-Howarth,

Book cover of A Glimpse of Eternal Snows: A Journey of Love and Loss in the Himalayas

Why this book?

A poignantly written memoir about a couple’s decision to volunteer in remote Nepal with their three young sons, one with a severe disability. Jane is a doctor and her husband is an engineer, and while they attempt to make a difference in the lives of the people they live and work amongst, they also strive to provide the best possible lives for their children. This includes baby David, whose alternative life is to be stocked up with medication and given daily blood tests in UK hospitals, as an ‘interesting medical case’. 

A zoologist by training, Wilson-Howarth’s prose is wonderfully observant of the natural environment, and little David is bound to capture every reader’s heart.


Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World

By Anu Taranath,

Book cover of Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World

Why this book?

This book is written for the millions of well-intentioned travellers and volunteers who travel to low-income countries to learn about and “help” people and cultures different from their own. Taranath unflinchingly confronts the awkward feelings of guilt, shame, and excess privilege that inevitably arise from international (and even inter-neighbourhood) travel. In their place, she offers a more nuanced look at how we fit in the intersectional jigsaw puzzle of global inequity, and how we can work to transform these feelings into the capacity to work towards justice. 

Beyond Guilt Trips is an essential companion to all those leading, engaging in, or contemplating travel, to ensure they embark on an inwards journey that mirrors the outward one.


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