Hundreds of commercial volunteering organisations offer volunteer spots in developing countries, but are volunteers actually providing any benefits?
Thirty years ago, the only volunteering opportunities in places like Africa and Southeast Asia were for skilled medical professionals who would take a year out from their work to ply their trade in a developing nation. Fast-forward to now and ‘voluntourism’ the modern-day equivalent of volunteering abroad, is a lot less exclusive.
Popularised by its inclusion on the archetypal gap-year agenda and regarded as another tick on the CV, volunteering has become a trendy way for wealthy westerners to give back to less fortunate communities. But despite good intentions from participants, volunteering abroad has attracted substantial criticism over the past few years.
Rather than benefiting local communities, voluntourism can have negative impacts as highlighted by a number of studies. These range from volunteers taking local jobs to child trafficking where young children are stolen from their families and placed into ‘orphanages’ to fuel the demand for volunteer placements. These kidnapped children are then subjected to deliberately poor living conditions to elicit higher donations from visiting westerners.
Down with voluntourism, up with volunteering
So how do volunteers with good intentions avoid the pitfalls of the industry? Before further harm is done, a clear conceptual divide needs to be drawn between the ill-planned, short-term volunteering projects and the meaningful, long-term projects that resemble the initial practice embarked upon by medical professionals in the past.
Research is key when it comes to choosing a project that falls under the latter category, also helping volunteers to prepare more thoroughly and manage expectations.
How to choose the right volunteer project
Look for organisations that are transparent and honest, those that are open to answering questions, or those that convincingly measure impact as change, rather than just numbers of things built or given away.
According to Tourism Concern, a charity campaigning on ethical tourism issues, finding answers to these questions will help volunteers make informed decisions about which organisation to work with:
- Who is organising the project? Are they a bona fide, registered charity or a business that contributes a small proportion of profits towards a charity?
- What is their motivation? Are they primarily a business or were they established to achieve a specific, worthwhile goal?
- Does the organisation have a written policy on ethics and responsibilities?
- What level of evidence is provided to demonstrate how the organisation implements its stated good intentions? Look for hard facts – don’t be fobbed off by PR flannel such as “thousands of volunteer pounds has aided the local economy.”
- Is a wildlife project designed with specific conservation goals or is it a glorified safari and/or an opportunity to pet captured wildlife?
- What has the organisation actually achieved so far, beyond painting the same school again and again or counting the same sea turtles?
- Is a reputable NGO or government agency involved?
- If “no knowledge or experience is required” why don’t they use local people? Is it because they just want your money?
This article was updated on 15/06/18