Five Reasons to Rethink your Decision to Volunteer Overseas

To be a Voluntourist or not to be a Voluntourist?…That is the Ethical Question

“Voluntourism is a balanced engagement alternating between voluntary service and tourism activities allows for a reciprocal relationship with communities. Residents who may be recipients of voluntary service are able to return that service by sharing their destination with visitors via exposure to the arts, culture, geography, history and recreation. The economic impact of tourism is blended with the social impact of volunteering.” 

More and more people are choosing volunteering overseas as an alternative form of travel. About 34% of Australians give their time each year to volunteer projects in developing countries.

Responsible travel encourages giving something back to the communities in which you travel and volunteering can be the perfect way to do that, however voluntourism can be fraught with ethical dilemmas.

The UN World Tourism Organisation affirms that well-structured and ethical tourism provides invaluable benefits to communities that might otherwise be negatively affected by tourism’s impacts.

With that in mind though, one should choose wisely the types of voluntourism activities they participate in to avoid unethical and adverse practices in communities. Before signing up to any program, here are five things you should know:

  1. Is the program ethically funded and well-structured? Is it part of a larger project that is funded by international organisations, government, private business or investors? If not, is it participation funded and are the funds enough to finish the project?
  1. Similarly, is it sustainable? Of course it needs to be environmentally sustainable, but economically and socially too. If it is a large privately funded project, will the community be able to sustain any costs involved in maintaining it? Will it provide economic advantage to the community (i.e. jobs, resources)? Is it an appropriate amount of development for that particular community and will it add to social cohesion, not conflict?

A community theatre built in a rural African tribal community might reflect our western cultural aspirations, but it won’t necessarily result in social cohesion.  The project should be culturally appropriate and socially sustainable and not create social divide in any way.

  1. Does the project meet community needs? It may seem obvious but there’s no point in building well in a village with direct access to a pristine water source. Find out from the organisation if there has been a community need’s analysis conducted and what the outcomes were. Are there any gaps in the communities needs and what the project promises to provide that might cause more harm than good and will the community actually be better off long-term? Furthermore, does the project conflict with any political and cultural norms? It will soon be obvious if the project is part of a larger moneymaking scheme.
  1. What fees are involved and where do they go? Any responsible NGO should be able to provide you with a breakdown of how the fees are used, including administration costs. The sad truth is that no amount of genuine human compassion can prevent the fact that voluntourism is now a major tourism market and many organisations like to pull at the heart strings of travellers by ‘spinning’ an all harps and violins story about orphans in need, but in doing so charge outrageous fees for the voluntourist to come and help in the project. While it might seem like a genuine worthwhile cause, it can actually create a market for unethical activities like orphaning children in return for payment and international crime.
  1. Has the organisation completed similar projects in the past? If so, have they been sustainable and have they returned to analyse the success of the project in meeting the initial goals and community needs?

In general, large international organisations and NGOs like UN Volunteering and Greenpeace may provide the most stable projects, but not always. If possible, I recommend contacting the organisation directly and avoiding going through middlemen like GAPAdventures, i-to-i, and other similar agencies.

Both free and paying volunteering opportunities can come with an ethical price, so by doing your homework you can be more certain that your voluntourism experience is rewarding for both the community and you.

As for us, we have chosen to participate in a project north of Quito, Ecuador in our respective fields of water treatment and sustainable development/tourism.

We’ll let you know how we went…stay tuned!

For more information on general voluntouring:

UN Volunteers “State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, 2011”

Planeterra Voluntourism Guidelines

VolunTourism.org

Voluntourism Gal

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Comments
One Response to “Five Reasons to Rethink your Decision to Volunteer Overseas”
  1. Thank you for this! Was thinking about volunteering overseas but wondering how to go the right way about it.

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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