Volunteer tourism –- often called ‘voluntourism’ –- is a controversial practice. Many people believe it’s a fantastic experience, while many others are critical of the many problems associated with voluntourism. Despite potential problems with voluntourism, it is possible to do it in an ethical and helpful way. Here are a few pointers for those who want to volunteer overseas.
1. Learn about potential problems with voluntourism.
If you want to volunteer overseas, I can only assume that you want to help people. That’s fantastic!
Unfortunately, though, voluntourism isn’t always helpful. In fact, some volunteer groups hurt the very communities they want to help. It’s important that you read critiques of voluntourism so that you avoid making the same mistakes others have made.
Voluntourism where children are involved is particularly problematic: not only does it fuel the demand for “fraudulent orphanages” (yes, that’s a thing), research also suggests that it’s damaging for vulnerable children to form attachments to caregivers that leave after a few months.
This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to volunteer overseas without harming others, but it does mean that there are certain issues you should look out for. Voluntourism needs to be approached with a skeptical eye, or you might unintentionally harm the people you want to help.
2. Ask yourself why you want to volunteer overseas.
Questioning your own motives and being self-reflective is really important. To ensure you’re doing the right thing, and not wasting time, money, and energy while potentially harming other communities, ask yourself why voluntourism appeals to you.
“Because I want to help,” might be your immediate reaction.
Okay, but why overseas? Why aren’t you doing it in your own country? It’s probably cheaper to volunteer locally and travel elsewhere.
Do you want to look like a better person? Do you want to feel like a better person? Do you want to ‘save’ people from another country? If so, are you aware of how condescending that might be?
Ask yourself hard questions, and give yourself hard truths. This isn’t just an important skill for when it comes to planning a volunteer trip –- it’s an important life skill that we all should learn.
3. Research potential agencies.
There are many agencies out there that could organize a volunteer trip overseas for you –- but don’t simply go with whichever agency pops up first on Google. To volunteer ethically, you’d want to give your time and money to an agency that is as above-board as possible. Since volunteers usually pay the agency a lot of money to organize their trip, many agencies care more about profit than impact.
But there are some good agencies out there -– you just have to be willing to do some research to find them.
Ask for a break-down of the budget, showing exactly where your fee goes. It’s normal and totally okay for the agency to take enough money to cover their running costs, but if it seems overboard, ask them for an explanation.
Secondly, you want to make sure that the agency really cares about the communities they aim to help. Avoid agencies that rely on stereotypes to market a place to you, or agencies that compromise the safety of the communities they’re helping. For example, an agency where you work with children should require you to undergo a full background check. If not, they aren’t protecting the children and probably don’t have their best interests at heart.
4. Research the region you’re visiting.
Any good tourist or traveler should research the area they’re visiting before they travel there. It helps you plan properly and enables you to interact with the locals in a respectful way.
Voluntourists are no exception. Your interactions and experience will be enhanced with research.
What’s the climate like? You’ll be working when you’re there, so make sure it’s a climate you can function in. What’s the political situation? What is culturally acceptable? What isn’t? What language do they speak? If you’re going to be there for a while, consider learning some of the local language (or languages) to improve your ability to help those around you.
To improve your ability to help the communities you want to help, it’s important that you have some context and sensitivity. That includes educating yourself about the place you’ll be volunteering.
5. Offer the skills you have.
I once had an encounter with some students from the UK who had come to South Africa to help build a small community library. It was a noble idea, except for one thing: none of them had any experience or training in construction whatsoever. They weren’t able to build a functional library.
The money they paid to the agency could have literally gone to pay the wages of a skilled worker –- of which South Africa has many -– who could have done a better job. The fact that this wasn’t what was done is a testament to how agencies are sometimes so interested in profit and giving their volunteers a good experience that they ignore the needs of the community.
If you’re hoping to volunteer abroad, do volunteer work based on the skills you already have. If you won’t be qualified to do the job back home, don’t try to do it overseas.
Perhaps you’ve worked as a teacher or tutor, or you have construction skills, or you have some kind of medical training. Perhaps you’re good at writing, bookkeeping, or PR and you’d like to lend those skills to a community-led program.
If you don’t have skills, reconsider going abroad. If there’s nothing specific that makes you more helpful than the average local, perhaps you should just donate the money and travel instead.