Voluntourism – Helpful Aid Or Just A Warm Fuzzie?

(Source: Google images)

There has been something of an explosion in the travel industry of a new form of travel dubbed “voluntourism”. Part community service, part holiday, participants agree to help out as volunteers as part of their holiday package. The range of opportunities on offer and the number of companies getting in on the action has expanded dramatically over the last ten years.

But is it a good thing?

Most of us would react positively to the idea of helping our fellow members of the human race in some capacity and if we can combine it with a holiday, all the better. And the community we work in benefits from our efforts. It’s a win-win, right?

Except that not all volunteering is created equal. Some offerings are more about providing that “warm fuzzie” moment for the traveller than of providing any lasting benefit to the recipient. Spending a week playing with orphans in Africa may make you feel good but what does it do to the children if you bond with them and then disappear forever?

“But surely they would be grateful for whatever we offered?” Someone actually said that to me once when I was voicing my concerns about some voluntourism organisations.

If my local childcare centre announced they were getting in a bunch of twenty-somethings from overseas to play with the children and that a different group would turn up each week, there would be an outcry. “Who are these people?” we would ask. “What checks have there been to guarantee my child’s safety?” we would demand. “It can’t be good for the children to have such a high turnover of carers,” we would mutter.

So if it’s not good enough for us, why must it be good enough for the poor?

It is also an industry open to exploitation. Cambodia, for example, has seen a massive increase in the number of orphanages being established in the last ten years despite there being no real reason for an increase in orphaned children. Foreigners seeking volunteer opportunities in Cambodia – and willing to pay large sums for the privilege – are actually fuelling the establishment of ‘orphanages’ that are often filled with children who are not orphans. There are no checks and balances and the money often doesn’t go to the care of the children. (Reference)

I am not against voluntourism. In fact, I am a participant myself. In 2009, I travelled to Peru as part of a World Expeditions Community Project. You can read about the experience here.

The bridge we built. (It’s concrete. That’s just the wooden frame.)

I did my research. I read extensively about the pros and cons, what to look for in an organisation, what to avoid and I must have read the prospectus of almost every company offering volunteer opportunities at the time. I was clear on what an organisation should be offering and what was most likely to be beneficial.

Interested in voluntourism? Here’s what to look for:

◊ Is the company offering the project a reputable, well-established company? Check out what they are about, what their beliefs are and how they rank on ethical tourism standards.

◊ Has the project been established in consultation with the local community? In other words, will you be working on something that the community actually needs and wants?

◊ Is the project of lasting benefit? Playing with orphans may make you feel good but what lasting benefit does it provide to the children? Better projects involve building or renovating something the community needs such as a school or community building, sanitation, etc.

◊ Is the project sustainable? In my research, I came across the story of an organisation that built a school for a village. When they visited the following year, the building was being used to house animals. There was no point in building a school for a community that didn’t have the money for furniture, books or the wages of a teacher. So choose a project that does not have ongoing costs and can stand alone once finished. Otherwise, check that the organisation is continuing to support the community to provide what is needed to sustain the project.

◊ Does the project employ local people? The last thing you want to do is take jobs away from other people. Check that the project has employed a local foreman and/or employs local trades people. It’s okay to be the grunt or muscle to get a job done.

◊ Where is your money going? Make sure you are clear on what you are paying for and where the money is allocated.

I would recommend a volunteering trip to anyone, if chosen carefully. It had an enormous impact on my life and is an experience I will never forget. Just make sure you are providing helpful aid to the community and not just a warm fuzzie to yourself.

In October, I will be participating in another World Expeditions Community Project. As part of their Rebuild Nepal program, I will spend ten days in the village of Lura with a team of volunteers and local people working to rebuild the local school that was damaged in the earthquake last April. More information here.




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Weekly Photo Challenge: Descent


That’s the Yuracrumiyoc Pass in the Urubamba region of the Andes in Peru. It was a breathless view from the top. Mainly because it’s nearly 4700m above sea level and we’d got there through a foot of snow.

The descent was just as hard going, picking our way down the other side, until I worked out there was a much easier way. I sat on a plastic bag, my walking pole across my knees and slid down it on my backside. Thus proving to yet another new group of friends that I am completely out of my mind.



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Getting a Grip 2: A Dose of Perspective in the Third World

In 2009 I participated in a Community Project trip to Peru with World Expeditions. It was one long experience of perspective.

Part holiday, part volunteer project, we trekked through the Andes for four days to the village of Tastayoq. There we spent four days building a new bridge across the river so the children could cross safely to get to school. Here’s what the original bridge looked like:

The original bridge

The original bridge

Being there in the dry season, the river was little more than a creek but when the water comes, it can be a raging torrent. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want my children crossing a fast-flowing river on this bridge.

At almost 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) above sea-level, we lugged rocks, mixed cement by hand, pushed wheelbarrows full of gravel and toiled away beside our Peruvian hosts to build this (The timber is just to hold the frame for the cement slab. It was removed after we left.):

The new bridge

When completed, we held an official opening and blessing of the new bridge and celebrated with the villagers. We had brought supplies for the school and some of these were handed out to the children as gifts.

Excitement as gifts are handed out.

This was my strongest lesson in perspective. The children were so excited to receive a pad of paper and a few pencils. When you live in a stone hut with a dirt floor and no running water, when your toys are the sticks and stones outside your door, some shiny new paper and sharp pencils all of your own must seem like a treasure bounty.

When I returned home, so many people greeted me with “Welcome back to the real world.” If only they knew. I had actually left the real world and come home to Fantasy Land.

For weeks after I returned, I couldn’t even sit with other parents waiting to pick up their children at school. The complaints of “Susie’s gymnastics teacher just doesn’t understand her” or “Johnny isn’t getting enough time on the basketball court” left me with an overwhelming urge to grab the parent by the shoulders and yell, “Get a grip!!”.

I shamefully admit that I did acclimatise back into Fantasy Land eventually and even now I find myself complaining of similar trivial issues. However, I am regularly reminded of my experiences in Tastayoq. On our trek to the village, we had pretty extreme weather. One day it rained so much I got wet right through my coat and three layers of clothing. Now, every time it rains, I remember that experience. It brings first a feeling of exhilaration (I loved our time trekking even when it snowed) then a reminder of the Tastayoq children. And I get a grip on my problems and remember how lucky I am.



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