by Liberty Stembridge, Lifestyle Columnist
Published in Lifestyle on 3rd May, 2019
Voluntourism refers to the trend of travelers, usually from western countries, travelling abroad to volunteer with an organisation in the hopes of doing some good in the world. Although on the surface this may seem like an excellent option for anyone looking to travel while also making a difference, voluntourism has a very sinister side to it that many overlook.
From animal abuse to child trafficking, many "voluntourism" schemes present themselves as a way for travellers to get to know the local area and put their skills to good use, but are actually businesses looking to make money from naive volunteers and by doing so, are putting the lives of local people and animals at risk.
You might be wondering what the dangers of voluntourism really are, after all, how bad can someone helping to build a house in the Dominican Republic really be? Although not all voluntourism schemes are detrimental to the community they are supposed to be helping, many are, so it's good to be clued up about what the potential ramifications of a poorly set up volunteering scheme can be.
For some volunteering schemes, it's not necessary for volunteers to have any particular skill sets, but for many of the volunteering schemes available, having experience in the field and the necessary qualifications would be incredibly valuable, and yet these volunteering organisations don't require them at all.
This is particularly prevalent in volunteering opportunities in schools and orphanages in developing countries. Volunteers who could actually make a difference in these situations would be trained teachers and childcare workers or child psychologists/therapists.
Many of these volunteering schemes are open to young, completely inexperienced travellers who are then expected to play with children and teach them English without any prior experience, and ultimately don't end up helping them at all.
One of the big problems with volunteering abroad in orphanages or schools is how it normalises access to these children. In many cases, children in orphanages come from difficult situations and may have been traumatized or have developmental problems.
In any western country, working with such children would require certain qualifications and security checks to make sure that you are able to help them and don't pose a threat.
Unfortunately for many of these volunteer schemes in orphanages abroad, none of these security measures are in place, and all it takes to work with these children is a few thousand dollars. As such the children can suffer a lack of privacy, inadequate care and even abuse from volunteers.
A key factor in the development of a community or recovery from disaster is the support and growth of local sustainable initiatives. Giving the residents the opportunity to help themselves in the ways that they think best, by rebuilding homes and schools and looking after the environment to grow food and promote biodiversity.
For many people living in regions of poverty or where natural disaster has struck, opportunities to rebuild their community or find work for their business are being taken away by well-meaning international volunteers who come to do the work for them. The volunteers get a life-changing experience, but it is at the expense of the local community.
Many volunteers travel abroad to help with ecological or animal welfare initiatives, by volunteering for animal sanctuaries or working to help plant trees, grow food etc etc.
Although many of these programs are very helpful, they are not always what they seem. For many animal welfare initiatives, the same problems as working with children arise.
Untrained volunteers pay money to work with animals, but this can end up harming the animals more than it helps them, by exposing them to possible abuse and improper care techniques. It can also promote the capture of animals that do not need to be in a sanctuary and would be better suited living in the wild, purely for the benefit of the volunteers and to attract more money.
When researched and done properly, you can volunteer abroad in a meaningful and helpful way, but it takes careful planning to make sure that you are not inadvertently harming a community, no matter how well-intentioned you are.
If you know you want to volunteer, but aren't sure how to find a good organisation or what kind of volunteering to do, here are some general guidelines that can help you find the right one.
Choosing the right kind of volunteering for you is very important. You might want to go diving in the coral reefs off the coast of hawaii, but do your current experience and goals support that opportunity?
Consider what you want to gain out of this opportunity. Are you looking for some adventure, to make a meaningful impact on a community, improve your CV or just meet like minded people? How much time do you have, a couple days, a week, a few months? All of these factors will affect what you can apply for and what you should apply for.
If you've only got a week or two free to volunteer and you want to make an impact, working in a school probably isn't the best option for you or them, but perhaps helping an ecological organisation protect turtle eggs during hatching season is.
Think about where your skills lie. You may want to do more hands-on work, but it may be that your most valuable skills are your communication or technical skills. Many people find that they can do more good by offering their services in translation, social media, web design, graphic design and so on.
If you have a more specific skill or qualification, such as being a teacher, medical professional, biologist, software engineer or architect, try to see if there any volunteering opportunities looking for people with your specific skill set.
Once you have a good idea of where your talents lie and what you can actually do to help, choosing the right organisation is the next step and a very important one.
There are several factors to consider such as the specific mission of the non-profit, what you'll be doing on a day-to-day basis, accomodation and food options for volunteers, how much of an impact the organisation actually makes, what locals think of the organisation, how much it costs, where it's located and who's actually running it. Do your research on a place and look out for warning signs.
Many volunteering opportunities require a fee in order to attend. If the organisation is a good one, this money will go towards running the non-profit and providing room and board for the volunteers.
However, some websites that advertise volunteering opportunities will take the money for themselves rather than giving it directly to the non-profit, while some "non-profits" will operate more like businesses and won't use your money to the benefit of the local community. Research the websites you use and places you're volunteering for carefully beforehand to make sure that this isn't the case.
Most cases of sinister voluntourism opportunities are found in orphanages, which is why most reputable volunteering organisations advise against volunteering in orphanages at all.
There have been many documented cases of fake orphanages popping up that exist simply to service volunteers rather than actually benefit the children living their, many of whom do have families they could go to. The children are often kept in poor conditions to elicit sympathy from volunteers.
If you are considering volunteering in an orphanage, look for ones that ask for reputable qualifications and have been independently verified.
There are various warning signs that you can look out for that may indicate that an organisation is not what it says it is. If the organisation is charging a ridiculous amount of money to let you volunteer there, it's probably more likely that you are paying for an experience rather than working to help others.
If they have little to no requirements and will accept anyone with money, that's probably all they are looking for. If, when questioned, they know very little about the actual problems you are supposed to be helping and are more focused on what you can gain out of an experience, they are again probably just trying to sell you a product.
Are there skilled, qualified people running the program, or locals who know the situation well and want to help, or is it just people looking to make a bit of money.
One of the most important elements of any volunteering opportunity is the long-term impacts it has on a community. Think carefully about the work you would be doing and whether it would really have that much of an impact.
Sure, teaching english for two weeks in Vietnam might boost your self-confidence and the kids at the school might have fun, but are you realistically going to be making a difference to their lives and improving the problem. Instead of teaching for two weeks, you could make more of a difference elsewhere, which leads me on to the next point.
Many overseas volunteers want to be hands-on and feel like they are really "in the thick of things" and making a difference, which is why many people choose to do building projects, or teaching. Although sometimes these are very much appreciated, oftentimes what is really valuable to people in need lies elsewhere, in more "mundane" tasks.
It may be that a school could do with someone to translate their teaching materials or website, or an NGO needs someone to help run their social media and get the word out about their organisation. An animal sanctuary could need people to help clean out poo and tidy up stalls during the busy season.
Although these may seem like boring tasks at first, they can really help organisations and provide support to specialist workers such as doctors, builders and teachers so that they can do their jobs better.
Connecting with previous volunteers is an excellent way to find out more about the organisation you'll be working with and to see if it's a good fit for you. Ask them about their experience, what they thought of the work being done, and whether they felt like they were really making a difference. Listen to any concerns they may have, and take those into account when you're making a decision.