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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They Speak A Foreign Language In America

As an Australian visiting the United States of America, I’ve been brushing up on my foreign language skills.

But you’re both English-speaking countries. Don’t you speak the same language?

Well, I think that’s a debatable point but I wasn’t actually talking about the spoken or written language.

Q: What’s the difference between a canoe and an Australian?

A: A canoe can tip.

If there is one thing that can strike more fear into the heart of an Australian visiting the USA than its lack of gun control it is the concept of tipping.

Tipping

Who to tip, when to tip, how much to tip…. It’s all a mystery to the average Australian.

It has always amazed me that two countries that began life as colonies of the British Empire could evolve so differently. Perhaps it is because one was founded primarily by pilgrims and settlers and the other by the criminal refuse of the Mother Country.

Tipping does exist in Australia but it is confined mostly to high end restaurants. Cafés have started putting tip jars on their counters but the only expectation is that you might drop in the couple of coins you were just handed in change for your coffee.

Even in restaurants, a tip is not really expected. It certainly is not, as it was for us at a restaurant the other night in New York, included in the bill.

You may, if you felt the food was outstanding and the service excellent, add a little extra when paying. Rounding up to the next five or ten dollars is reasonable.

I often think Americans must excel in the mathematical topic of percentages, given they must constantly work out tips based on an expected percentage.

What I will never understand is the expectation of a tip even if the food was ordinary and the service indifferent.

It is not just the value of the tip that is confusing to Australians, it is how extensive tipping is across American society. Hotels are a particular case in point.

Leaving a tip for the person who comes in to clean your room is, frankly, a bizarre concept to us. There is an implicit understanding that, having paid hundreds of dollars a night for a room, all standard expenses related to that room are covered. Certainly, it is expected that the person who comes to clean your room is being paid a wage to do that job out of those hundreds of dollars you just handed over at reception.

But this is where I start to get an understanding of why tipping is so important in America. In Australia, we fight hard to ensure everyone is earning a reasonable living wage whatever their occupation. To be honest, we have some more work to do on that but the situation is nowhere near as dire as it seems to be in the USA.

The minimum wage in New York State is currently US$8.75/hour. It’s even lower in many other states and six states don’t even have a minimum wage. (Ref.) In Australia, the minimum wage applies across all states and is currently set at A$16.87/hour (US$13.07). (Ref.)

Australia also has universal healthcare, so even though the minimum wage is low, those on low incomes can access free medical care. In America, where much of healthcare is an additional cost to be borne (unless one is lucky enough to have employer-provided health insurance), those on even lower wages must rely on the generosity of strangers and tourists to help them cover these costs.

As an Australian, it’s hard not to see compulsory tipping as a form of legalised begging for the poor.

I hope we don’t see extensive tipping become the norm in our country. I hope we continue to try and ensure every person is paid a liveable wage.

But we will continue to leave a few dollars on the table for the person who comes to clean our room while we are visiting the USA.

Australians can tip. We just don’t understand why.

 

 

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