In theory, spending your time abroad volunteering should be a good thing. But it’s not quite as simple as that. There’s been considerable debate for some time around whether voluntourism can create more negative impacts than positive impacts. The market is now swamped with organisations offering placements in developing countries for Western travellers – building schools or working at a children’s home, for example – and the fact of the matter is that not all of them are genuinely doing good.
The most high-profile and shocking stories tend to come from what’s known as “orphan tourism”, where concerns have arisen over institutes using children who aren’t actually orphans to attract tourists (in 2011 the UN Children’s Fund noted that nearly three out of four children in Cambodian orphanages had at least one living parent). On a wider scale – as the Ethical Volunteering website points out – problems can also range from “volunteers who are imposed on host communities, to projects that turn out not to exist, to volunteers who exploit their hosts hospitality to projects that are a waste of everyone’s time and money”. In addition, industry insiders have expressed concern that volunteers are often brought in to do a job that a local person could do, thereby taking local job opportunities and impacting negatively on the local economy.
Of course, that’s not to suggest travellers should avoid voluntourism altogether. Ken Budd, author of The Voluntourist, argues that “condemning voluntourism as a whole is like condemning democracy because certain politicians are crooks. The problems lie with irresponsible programmes and uninformed volunteers.”
So how can you make sure you’re embarking on a trip that will actual have a positive impact rather than a negative one?
Laura Hammersley, who is currently researching volunteering and international development alternatives at Macquarie University in Australia, says: “Great care needs to be taken when choosing the most appropriate organisation to volunteer with. Many of the problems associated with volunteer tourism (cultural stereotyping, corruption, exploitation, taking local jobs, disrespecting local knowledge/expertise) need not exist if programmes and sending organisations involved more careful planning and effective management. Volunteer tourism and volunteering for development with other cultures is now a big industry and there are lots of for-profit based organisations willing to exploit both volunteers and the partners they work with (often exacerbating the issues many volunteers seek to assist in eradicating), so caution needs to be taken to ensure you pick a good organisation that is transparent.
“Even before volunteers decide to participate, they need to understand that good intentions are not enough. Volunteers need to take time to think about their expectations in terms of what they can achieve and the ways in which this might happen. It is important that volunteers understand their role as facilitators rather than implementors, and knowledge conveners rather than knowledge providers who are working within the privileged position of listener, learner and guest. They should avoid going in with an attitude that they can make a difference (unfortunately this is a marketing tool for exploitative organisations and is not the case). Issues of poverty and inequality are historically entrenched problems, which a short-term two-week trip will not solve.”
Crucially, she says: “If any organisations promise such transformations it is a clear indication that they themselves are not aware of the complexities and problems of the development industry. The idea is to avoid perpetuating an illusion that Western society represents the only solution to global development issues.”
Hammersley recommends heading over to Kate Simpson’s Ethical Volunteer website, which features guidance on choosing organisations – including questions you should be asking. Does the organisation work with a local partner organisation, for example? What sort of training or support will you get? And does that organisation have any policies on eco or ethical tourism?
I also asked Budd, who has taken part extensively in voluntourism himself, to offer some tips for making sure a project is good for the community in which it’s based – and for yourself:
1. Get a from-the-trenches perspective
Once you’re interested in an organisation, ask to speak with a previous volunteer – someone who worked where you want to work. Basic questions include: was the work you did helpful, are the local running the programme, did you feel safe, and what was good and what was not-so-good about the experience?
2. Inspect the organisation
Ask about its philosophy, how it operates and how your money will be spent. Is the organisation creating dependency or partnerships? Cross-Cultural Solutions, for example, prohibits volunteers from giving money to its partner programmes because it believes this creates dependency. Global Volunteers posts a lengthy “philosophy of service” on its website.
3. Demand to be scrutinised
Before volunteering, I was always asked to complete a skills questionnaire or write an essay about my motives and strengths. When my wife and I worked at a children’s home in Kenya, we underwent a background check and provided references. If an organisation doesn’t take precautions or evaluate your skills, consider it a warning sign. Volunteer organisations should be interested in the talents you can provide their partners – not how quickly you can send a cheque.
4. Consider the intangibles
As a short-term volunteer, the work you do can indeed be helpful – I assisted climate change researchers in Ecuador and the scientists could run more projects with volunteer labour than they could otherwise. But the cultural interactions are equally beneficial; they change how we view others and how others view us, and can lead to lasting connections.
To be continued…Part 2: Links for researching voluntourism opportunities
Picture credit: MyFavouritePetS
Post first published at the Ethical Travel website – www.goethicaltravel.com.
Copyright Ruth Stokes @ Ethical Travel.