There’s a lot of noise surrounding voluntourism – some of it positive, most far from it. Commentary is right to be skeptical. After all, the billion-dollar volunteer tourism industry has its fair share of issues. The general premise is pretty simple: travellers (vastly white travellers) take off for a few days, weeks or months to volunteer in less privileged countries. In turn, they see a side of the world they haven’t been exposed to before.
Not a bad idea, hey? Unfortunately travellers’ good intentions, without deeper knowledge or experience to guide them, can be quite dangerous. The biggest criticisms surrounding short-term international volunteer programs are that they promote the age-old ‘white saviour complex’ (check out the Barbie Savior Instagram account, which offers a witty clap-back to some volunteers’ ill-informed, do-gooder rhetoric), bolsters unethical travel agencies looking to make a quick buck off of systemic, life-affecting issues, and is actually, in many cases, extremely detrimental to those communities volunteers are seeking to help.
So, the vast negative aspects of voluntourism are well documented, but is there still a place for the international volunteer? Are there activities volunteers can get involved in that do make a lasting difference and don’t undermine the causes they seek to help? In short, yes, absolutely.
Here’s our advice on finding ethical and needed volunteer work, and how to do your small bit with conscience and integrity.
Avoid everything ‘gap year’
Opt for volunteer opportunities with grassroots charities and not-for-profits, rather than commercial companies. Though often well-meaning, these companies have an agenda that goes beyond making a difference. One of the easiest ways to spot if a company is profiting from their volunteer programs is how they market. ‘Once-in-a-lifetime’ ‘gap year’ experiences are usually commercially-led programs, asking youngsters to pay significant money (£2500 is the usual going rate in the UK) to work on often pointless (and possibly harmful) tasks in developing countries. (The fable that unqualified well-meaning volunteers spend ten days building a toilet in a less privileged location, and locals spend ten days fixing said toilet, is unfortunately all too true). Instead, you want to go for ethical, not-for-profit organisations, doing work that is actually needed in that specific community. Sites like GoOverseas.com, GoAbroad.com, GoVoluntouring.com, Voluntourism.org, LearningService.info and Next Generation Nepal’s guide to ethical volunteering provide advice on how to find meaningful volunteer work and service-oriented trips with regulated, interesting organisations.
So, you’ve found an organisation that you think could be a good, ethical fit for your volunteering aspirations. Now it’s time to ask questions. Doing a little more digging ensures that you’re signing up to a placement where your time and efforts will be well spent. Here are the key questions to ask before signing up to any international volunteer program…
- What are your motivations for volunteering abroad?
- What work will you do, and where? If the answers you receive back from the organisations are vague, you should think twice.
- How does this work affect the local community? Are you displacing local people’s jobs?
- Do you have the skillset for the sort of work being asked of you?
Ask your chosen organisation for the contact details of a few previous volunteers (and not just those who have written glowing feedback on their website). Speak to these volunteers, and learn of their experiences. Did they feel their contributions were helpful to the community? Did they feel safe and comfortable?
Go in with a good attitude
Research the local culture before your trip and be mindful and respectful of any differences. Once you’re on the ground, treat your volunteering as you would a job: show up each day on time, and be present, open minded, helpful, and willing to adapt.
Photo by Eddie Kopp on Unsplash
Think long term
Generally, longer term projects (those over three months) are considered more beneficial to communities. Experts say that a constant conveyor belt of new faces can be disruptive.
Avoid orphanage tourism
Use social media mindfully
Privacy rights cross all borders. If working with children, don’t take pictures of them and upload them to social media. Think carefully about what you say online about your volunteering experience.
Don’t forget about volunteering back home
Whether it’s visiting nursing homes or getting your hands dirty in the local community garden, there’s a wealth of volunteer opportunities back home that are in need of more helpers. Consider these opportunities too. Here, you already have the cultural understanding, language and ease of location to be able to make a direct, ongoing difference.
You won’t save the world, but you will make a positive contribution
Complex, deep-rooted issues won’t be solved by your six month’s abroad but, given the right program and attitude, your work can make a small but real difference.