Do-Gooders, Here’s What You Should Know About Volunteering Abroad
The desire to give back to a travel destination you love is a wonderful impulse. But even your purest do-gooder instincts can open up ethical questions. The most important: Are you actually helping?
Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, is a booming industry. Millions of travelers want to volunteer on vacation, eager to spend billions of collective dollars to “help” in developing countries, and enterprises have sprung up to fill that demand. Some truly intend to do good. But some take advantage of warm-hearted travelers and exploit locals.
Here are a few ways to find out whether your efforts will make a positive difference in your favorite community abroad.
1. Check your motives.
Let’s be blunt. That “candid” pic of you surrounded by smiling children in India will get a heaping ton of likes on Instagram. But if that’s why you’re interested in volunteering, skip it.
Here’s a good metric: If you would be happy to do the same work without a smartphone in hand to document the process, you’re good. If you’d be bummed to volunteer without notifying everyone in your social media following, you should reconsider. These types of tourists are often the ones targeted by volunteering scams or large for-profit groups.
2. Research the organization.
When looking for a volunteer program, you need to know the organization’s mission. Are they motivated to affect long-term change or are they looking to funnel tourists through without regard for the locals?
You want to work with an organization that follows the old “help people help themselves” adage. You know, giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish. If you’re interested in helping to build a school in Haiti, check to see that the organization in charge is also figuring out how to fund that school in the future. Constructing walls is easy. Laying the foundation for lasting change in an education system is drastically more difficult and far more important.
It’s also important to note that the people who know best how to solve a problem are usually the ones experiencing it. If you do choose to go abroad and volunteer, make sure the people in charge are locals. They know what is right for their communities; you’re just there to lend a hand. Try searching on the Ethical Volunteer for well-vetted organizations. The group puts you in direct contact with local leadership so you can ask all the right questions.
Blatant disregard for the long-term success of native populations isn’t the worst-case scenario. Intentional exploitation of poor children runs rampant in the orphanage tourism industry. (Yes, industry.) There are tour companies that supply shady orphanages with a stream of visitors, keeping the orphanages running with little oversight as to the children’s living situation and well-being.
And besides potential mistreatment, many of these kids aren’t orphans at all. Al Jazeera found that 70 percent of so-called orphans in Cambodia in 2012 had at least one living parent. But the influx of rich tourists offered a better life for the children away from their parents. That was five years ago – the voluntourism business has only grown since.
3. Follow the money.
Take a hard look at how much you’d pay for your volunteer experience. And then check to see how much of that fee would go back into the community you’re “helping.”
The overhead costs of volunteering abroad are enormous. You need somewhere to sleep and someone to train you on your work, not to mention the cost of the actual project of constructing buildings, caring for animals or operating a school. But some groups suffer from more insidious monetary issues.
Even well-respected organizations like the Red Cross have money management problems, and they face intense international scrutiny on a regular basis. It’s hard to know whether your volunteer fee is going to the cause or going in someone else’s pocket.
So you should ask. When looking seriously at a program, don’t hesitate to ask a contact at an organization to break down where your money will go. Groups do need some money to cover operational costs, but you want most of your fee to go directly to the community.
4. Think about timing.
Short-term volunteering is best suited for the less-glamorous tasks (think data entry or cleaning, jobs that require very little training). These are often environmental conservation programs.
Anything that involves building personal relationships requires a longer stay. If you want to work with kids, you should prepare to spend at least a couple months abroad. New people cycling in and out of children’s lives can be devastating to their emotional health, so volunteers should be aware that working in schools is an endeavor best-suited for the Peace Corps or Americorps — trained volunteers ready to be on the ground for years at a time.
5. Be honest about your expertise.
Just because you can speak English doesn’t mean you should teach English in foreign schools. Being able to bang a hammer doesn’t mean you’re ready to build homes, and watching “Grey’s Anatomy” absolutely doesn’t prepare you to give medical advice in the aftermath of a crisis. Keep in mind that you’re the same person volunteering abroad as you are at home.
If you aren’t qualified for a job here, you’re not qualified there. Just because there is a perceived greater need abroad doesn’t mean you are the right person to fill the void. You need to think critically about how much your skills can benefit a community and choose your volunteer program accordingly.
6. Consider that your money might mean more than your time.
This one will require letting go of your ego a little bit. If you’re considering paying for the opportunity to be hands-on in an underserved community, it’s possible your money would go farther as a donation.
People pay anywhere from a few dollars a day to thousands for the privilege of volunteering, not including what they pay for transportation to and from a volunteer site. But here’s a brutal truth: it costs a lot of money to fly to a destination specifically to volunteer there. If you don’t offer a specialized skill — like doctors, nurses, engineers, etc. — the price of that flight might be more helpful as a check made out to an aid organization of your choosing.
However, if you really want to push your travel adventures to be as ethical as possible, check the programs listed on Responsible Tourism. The annual award winners are broken down by category, so you can find anything from snow leopard tracking in India to a musical tour of Morocco. While you might not be volunteering per se, your money would go straight to local economies and help preserve traditional cultures.
At the end of the day, it’s not that there are zero ethical volunteer opportunities out there. It just takes some time, research and soul-searching to find the right one for you.