An increasing number of travellers are volunteering during their vacations, but sometimes they do more harm than good. The desire of so many travellers to go on a trip and at the same time do some good has fueled the industry of voluntourism: a number of companies now offer tourists the possibility to work on a variety of projects, from monitoring wildlife to teaching English abroad. But the real teaching programmes are actually paid. For example, a friend of mine went to teach English in China: it was a good way for her to make some money on the go, learn about the culture and way of life of the country, and travel around (slowly and locally).

I am not a big fan of voluntourism, perhaps because thanks to my previous job experience I have a very clear and possibly strict idea of how volunteering should work. Most of the time, when I read about voluntourism programmes – ones that people pay for in order to join – I get really angry, as in my mind nobody should be made to pay in order to work. But there is more to it than just paying. My personal experience may help shed some light into my cynical views on voluntourism.

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Is this cute child going to benefit from voluntourism?

I am a former human rights lawyer and researcher, I have spent most of my life working for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and International Organisations. In my years in the field, I have learned that every little bit helps, but that in order for that to really make a difference it has to be done a certain way that requires certain specific skills. That is why NGOs that work on human rights or sustainable development projects have a very tough selection process even for volunteering positions. The whole idea behind it is that volunteers can actually bring help to the community (rather than to a single individual), by spending a number of months (sometimes even years) working on projects that are long term. The same goes for organisations that work on the protection and care of animals. They do require real commitment and a certain number of skills too.

NGOs and voluntourism programmes

While working on the protection of the Roma minorities in Europe, I have had the chance to visit a number of Roma settlements. Every time I went to one of those settlements, I was overwhelmed by the amount of work there was to be done to achieve full integration of the Roma, and I was thankful that a number of volunteers would help in the daily issues that people living in those settlements would face – from taking the children to school, to running post-school play camps, to helping parents take the children to the doctors. Some of the work volunteers did was highly skilled – creating a play-camp for children meant having some sort of background in social work or education. But what mattered the most was the level of trust between the families and the volunteers, something that could only be achieved by devoting a lot of time and effort to the cause. Volunteering in this sense is a long term commitment, that goes well beyond the 2 or 3 weeks of voluntourism programmes.

Before deciding to give up my career in human rights law altogether, I applied to work as a “volunteer” for Peace Brigades International in Colombia. This is a very reputable international NGO whose mission is “to open a space for peace in which conflicts can be dealt with non-violently” and which uses the strategy of international presence and concern that supports local initiatives and aims to develop a culture of peace and justice. PBI is present in Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Nepal.

voluntourism

Wildlife conservation programmes are very popular in voluntourism

The application to work as a volunteer and the selection process was a long and strenuous one. I thought that, with all my skills and expertise, it would not be hard to become a volunteer for PBI. I was wrong! The application required me to fill in a number of documents, write essays, get reference letters from my previous work supervisors. I was then selected for a skype interview which was successful and, subsequent to that, over a number of months, I was given various assignments that involved a lot of studying and writing about the political, social and human rights situation in Colombia. Provided that my work was satisfactory I would then be selected for the final training before being sent to Colombia, where I was expected to live and work for at least 18 months, having my flight and living expenses covered and a small stipend each month.

The overall selection process lasted 10 months. I was eventually accepted, but decided not to go in the end, as I was unsure I would be able to commit myself for the minimum 18 months required and I was considering having a career change (which then brought me to blogging, but that is a different story). It was out of respect for the organisation and their incredible work that I decided not to go in the end. I saw how much effort they put in selecting suitable volunteers and I would feel irresponsible to let them down while they most needed me.

Volunteering while travelling, or travelling to volunteer – voluntourism

A number of travellers and backpackers on a tight budget opt to work while on the road, to save some money here and there on food and accommodation. Quite a few of them pick up jobs in hostels, occasionally in bars, and others opt to work in farms, on a number of projects that go from permaculture to actually helping build a home. Sure, working a few hours per day in exchange of a bed can be useful – one can get some work experience, learn new skills and even meet some interesting people. However, there are no real projects let alone missions that benefit a community. A volunteer in a hostel has the unique mission of making sure that the employer saves money from actually employing (and paying) a local. Because really, all the employer is providing in exchange of the hours worked is usually just a bed in a dorm, that would most likely not be rented anyways. To me, that can’t be called voluntourism, and for sure it does not even remotely resemble volunteering because there is no community benefit but just a business agenda.

Voluntourism with children

Voluntourism with children

Regardless of what I consider or not as proper volunteering, I was keen to save some pennies during my travels in Central America, and I made a few attempts at working while on the road. I failed miserably. I suppose that someone with my kind of background really has high expectations when it comes to projects in so called volunteering. I don’t mind manual job, really. But I did not see much sense in having to scrub the dirtiest kitchen and doing other heavy manual jobs (some of them actually requiring specific skills such as those of a plumber or a construction worker, which I do not have) in what was only pretending to be a permaculture farm and where the only long term plan was to eventually make profits.

To me, that was not volunteering, but it was the attempt of a person who could not afford to run her own business to get it up and running without investing a minimum amount of time, effort and money on it. It may be an overly cynical way to see things, but I was not getting anything out of it other than a bed and an amount of food that was insufficient even to a small girl like I am. There was certainly no tourism attached to it as the area was so isolated that it was impossible to even just go on a day trip on the only free day I had per week. I was certainly not learning anything new. And sure enough I was not helping a community. All I was doing was helping a person in getting her profitable business up and running. It really looked and felt like slavery. So I left.

Voluntourism

In recent years, it has become more and more fashionable to join volunteering programmes in developing countries, and voluntourism has become a new way to travel. So much so that even leading tour operators organise trips that take people to working camps. These programmes imply that the volunteer pays a fee to travel to said country, receive accommodation and food and work in a community. The companies organising the trips actually do make profits from it and the thought of it makes me shiver altogether, as I get the impression that they are cheating reputable NGOs who have significant projects that aim at improving the lives of people, and end up giving people the wrong idea of what volunteering is all about.

Mind you, it is not only big tour operators that attract travellers willing to volunteer. Small or large companies that try to make a profit from “exploiting” the volounturism trend are hidden everywhere on the web, even on sites that are beyond any suspicion of wanting to make profits. Again, my experience in this sense is a useful example.

Before embarking on my big backpacking trip through Central America, I considered a few options that may help me save a bit of money and thus allow me to travel for a longer time. The first obvious place to look to me was Couchsurfing, a hospitality exchange and social networking website that provides a platform for members to stay as a guest at a host’s home for free. If used in the right way, it is a great means to meet the locals, to have a real cultural exchange and to share experiences. As I looked for places to stay in Santa Elena, Guatemala, I stumbled upon an inviting profile: a local family offered to host travellers and it seemed like a genuine place to stay. I asked to be hosted and in turn I was sent back to another page that publicised working camps and which clearly highlighted the fees to pay in order to participate.

It was fairly simple: whoever wanted to be hosted by a local family and “volunteer” would have to pay a fee to cover accommodation and living expenses. The higher the fee, the better the accommodation. But what I found most interesting was that the higher the fee paid was, the less amount of hours one was expected to work. It pretty much looked like paying was a way to bail oneself out of work.

I am not exactly a beginner traveller, but I must say even I was tempted at the idea of living with a local family for one or two weeks. But then I thought: “wait a second, why would I have to pay to work, and why the more I pay, the less I have to work?” To me, this really deceived the whole purpose of volunteering. Besides, what I really disliked and found distasteful was the fact that that company (a small, local company) used a platform like Couchsurfing for its marketing purposes in the sneakiest kind of way. Mind you, this is not uncommon, and in fact I came across other individuals who used Couchsurfing to promote their business (ie camping sites). So, I did the only sensible thing I could do in this case: I reported the profile and Couchsurfing (which are great at responding) immediately took it down. But I am pretty sure that, if even a seasoned traveller like I am was lurked into reading that page, many younger ones actually fell for the trap.

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There are plenty of voluntourism programmes for wildlife conservation – courtesy of George Kenyon

Finding a good voluntourism programme

What is important to keep in mind when considering voluntourism programmes is that large NGOs usually cover transportation and accommodation fees for qualified workers such as doctors, nurses, veterinarians and engineers, because they do need those skills and they can’t find them in the country where they are running their projects. They demand a strong commitment – as PBI did with me when I planned to work for them. Unskilled workers willing to volunteer – especially for smaller NGOs – on a short basis usually have to pay for their own expenses, or else that money could and should be used by the NGO to hire a local worker. And that is ok too.

I found myself discussing voluntourism with other travel bloggers, and most of us agreed that it is important that NGOs do hire local workers when they are looking for unskilled labour. These ideas should be the benchmark when it comes to volunteering, as Mike Huxley of Bemused Backpacker believes. Like me, Mike has participated in “real” volunteering projects with larger NGOs and he dislikes the concept and the ideas behind voluntourism. He thinks that it is morally wrong for companies such as tour operators to turn volunteering into a profitable business where there is no benefit to the community involved and where the volunteering is engineered in order to keep streams of revenue generating tourists coming in to do jobs that really make no difference.

The fact that I am so cynical in my views on voluntourism doesn’t mean I am completely against it. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I think that, provided that it is done in the right ways and with the right mind-frame, it is a great and enriching experience both for the volunteer and for the community, and even if done for a short term. So, here are a few simple tips to help choosing the right volunteering programme.

Look for a reputable organisation: biggest and best known NGOs, International Organisations and charities may be more difficult to get in, the application process may be more time consuming and the level of commitment higher, but they have meaningful programmes that really do make a difference and working for them is an enriching experience that actually also looks good on the curriculum. A good charity will not demand a fee in order to volunteer but may expect volunteers to cover their own expenses if they commit for a short time.

Check the programme and the mission of the organisation: a reputable organisation will have a clear mission statement and a very specific programme highlighting why the work of volunteers is needed, how the local community will benefit from it, and why locals can’t be hired for the same job. Is the programme actually sustainable?

Ask the right questions, and be honest in answering them. Questions to be asked include: why do I want to volunteer? Is the community going to benefit from my work and from the programme in the long term? Is there any possibility that I may do more harm than good? Am I stopping a local from being hired to do the same job? Do I have the necessary skills? How long can I commit for? Will I learn anything new?

Finally, before travelling to a far away country to join a volunteering programme, make sure to read a lot about that country, its community, its way of life, its history and culture.

Have you ever volunteered in a foreign country? What are your thoughts on voluntourism? Let me know in the comments below!

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