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How to Be a Good Voluntourist

Locally-made souvenirs in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Voluntourism – the word-progeny of “volunteer” and “tourism” that means, you guessed it, tourism that includes volunteering – has been on an exponential upward trend for at least the last decade. (Although apparently, the term is still not popular enough for spellcheck to know what it is.) In the last year or two, however, I’ve been seeing more negative commentary on the practice. Should we call the whole thing off? There have been reams of articles and entire books dedicated to the topic, so I’m just going to hit the high points. Fair warning, I’m about to burst the “happy bubble” on a few things you think you know about volunteering while you travel.

First things first, why have people soured on voluntourism? Unfortunately, as demand for voluntourism projects has grown, so have the opportunities for abuse. Scams are rampant. Thorny ethical issues arise. (Consider, for example, medical mission trips for medical students: we don’t allow med students to practice medicine on people here, so why is it okay to let them practice medicine on people in developing countries?) In short, many people argue that the whole practice does more harm than good.

I don’t believe that all voluntourism is bad, however. If volunteering is a valuable, worthwhile activity in your hometown, why shouldn’t it be valuable and worthwhile in other parts of the world? Volunteering allows you to forge a deeper connection with the people and cultures you encounter and to develop empathy for the problems that they face. As with tourism generally, when voluntourism is done well, it can make a strong positive impact. The key, of course, is doing it right.

The essence of sustainable tourism is to travel in a way that benefits the destinations you visit; the same is true of volunteering. You should never be more of a burden than a benefit when you volunteer. So if you want to volunteer during your travels, you need to do a little extra homework. You might start by reading up on the bigger picture issues you’re interested in; that will help you better assess the value of a program. Then you’ll need to dig into your options, to make sure you work with a responsible, quality program. A few things to look for as you vet organizations:

  • They should have a specific measureable goal that they’re working toward, and they should be able to provide some evidence that their work is producing results.

  • They should be connected to the communities where they work. Did they develop their programs with local input and goals in mind? Are they sticking around in the community long enough to make a real difference?

  • They should be transparent in how they spend their money and should be open to answering your questions and providing references.

  • They should provide volunteer support, including training and safety plans.

The next step is considering the type of work you’re volunteering for. Look for projects that address the underlying causes of a problem, rather than those that provide a temporary solution. After all, the ultimate goal of development and aid work is to create the kind of sustainable conditions where foreign aid is no longer needed – basically, to put the aid workers (and volunteers) out of business.

Also, you should never volunteer to do something you’re not qualified or trained to do. This includes teaching and, I hate to break it to you, some manual work – both of which are popular, short-term volunteer projects. (There are stories of volunteer-built houses having to be torn down and rebuilt after the volunteers leave, because they weren’t constructed properly. Don’t be that voluntourist.)

Finally, there’s one more bubble I have to burst: you should never volunteer at orphanages, or actually, in any capacity with children. Some people say that you can still do this with care (for example, by only choosing programs that run background checks on anyone having contact with children), but putting a complete embargo on this type of work makes sense to me. There has been extensive research showing the harm that orphanage systems do to children. Many of the children in orphanages in developing countries aren’t actually orphans. Their parents may have placed them there because they couldn’t care for the children themselves, but in that case, resources are better spent on programs that will reunite children with their families. And in some terrible (and unfortunately not rare) cases, orphanages pay parents for their children, to fuel the profitable orphan-tourism industry. Even if you find a legit orphanage that’s doing all the right things, consider that traumatized or vulnerable children need to be handled with care, and after a few hours or days spent bonding with you, they’ll be further traumatized when you suddenly leave. Ergo: leave children out of your voluntourism plans.

The final step for being a good voluntourist is in the execution. Once you’re on the job, remember to treat the local people with respect, observe their cultural norms, work hard, follow instructions, and be humble. You’re not their savior; you’re their guest.

All of that being said, you don’t have to volunteer to make a positive difference when you travel. Sometimes donating money to a worthy local program is even better than volunteering. This, too, is a form of service. For example, if tourist donations mean an organization can employ local people and provide them with a livable income, that’s a more lasting benefit than your free labor. You can also contribute by directing your tourist dollars toward the local communities, by supporting locally-owned shops, restaurants, and hotels, instead of large chains. These are the kind of activities and spending choices we emphasize on our Mockingbird tours. Volunteering is not for everyone, but you can still do good with your travels.

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