Education program India via Shutterstock
The explosive growth of ‘voluntourism’ over recent years has offered a reassuring glimpse of the conscience of many modern travellers while simultaneously raising new concerns over who really benefits from this burgeoning industry.
Although the desire to do good abroad is indisputably a noble one, the charges against certain forms of voluntourism are varied and, in many cases, apparently justified.
Among the most eye-catching and emotive of criticisms is over (mismanaged) volunteering at orphanages, which can be unsafe to the point of profoundly harmful for the children. There are obvious concerns around treating children as tourist attractions and the consequences of placing unqualified adults placed in positions of significant responsibility. But there is also the growing realisation that in countries like Nepal and Cambodia, orphanage voluntourism is simply creating a demand for yet more orphans – children removed from their families to generate a new source of income for their parents.
Indeed the perils of unintended consequences is a common snag for voluntourism with numerous examples of intentions to do good actually leading to causing more harm, and often among the most vulnerable of the world’s communities.
The obvious example is of unskilled volunteers travelling to countries suffering from high unemployment and working for free on construction projects of dubious merit or quality of workmanship, when training and employing local workers could have a much more significant and lasting impact on livelihoods.
Despite these concerns not many people would argue that volunteering itself is fundamentally flawed, but only that much of its practice needs urgently to be fixed. This was the question behind the recent #MendNotEnd conversions which flourished following an Outbounding discussion on the same topic.
And this is the subject addressed in a free ebook on volunteering and travel philanthropy, Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good, published in January 2015 by Inspired Escapes, a UK-based adventure philanthropy company and edited by Ethan Gelber, a leading advocate for responsible travel.
Drawing on many of the expert voices involved in the #MendNotEnd discussions, Adventures Less Ordinary offers an anthology of perspectives and practical guidance for travellers interested in donating either time or money while travelling abroad and who want to be certain their impact is both lasting and positive.
Among the guide’s numerous recommendations are core lessons that are appropriate for all forms of international volunteering and philanthropy:
1) Understand your own motives: Start by deciding why you want to help – only then can you figure out the best way to make a real impact. For example, If you’re driven purely by a desire to help others it may be that service closer to home in your own community would be more worthwhile. If it’s international experience you’re seeking, perhaps fundraising or awareness-building may be a more effective pursuit depending on your skills.
2) Understand your skills and capacities: What are you best qualified or trained to do? Seek out the opportunities where you can make a genuine, not tokenistic, impact. If you’re not qualified to do the same job at home, what makes you qualified to do it abroad? Skills and capacity transfers are among the most valuable forms of volunteering, unskilled labour and short-term volunteering with children or orphans may even be counter-productive. As above, there are other ways to ‘do good’ when you travel – raising funds instead of donating your time may allow you to have a much greater impact.
3) Seek to do the least harm: Whatever you choose to do, your presence will have an inevitable impact. Maximise the positive and mitigate the negative by doing careful due-diligence on your sending organisation and how their projects are organised. Choose projects that are inspired and driven internally by local stakeholders identifying their own needs. Seek out the organisations that make genuine efforts to match skills with appropriate projects, that can account for how your fee is distributed, and that have a genuine commitment to sustainable, inclusive projects.
4) Appreciate the costs: Accept that there are overheads to organising volunteer placements, which you as the volunteer will need to cover. Organisations need financial stability to ensure longevity and sustainability in their programmes. Your fee is an integral part to your positive impact, but seek transparency in how your fees are spent and distributed to projects on the ground.
5) Persist and follow up: Your personal experience shouldn’t end when you get home; the community is still out there. Once you return you can continue to raise funds and public awareness for the issues and the programme and become an ambassador for the project you personally supported.
At its core, Adventures Less Ordinary offers a message of optimism: yes, volunteering can be a genuine force for good in the world and can help extend the benefits of international tourism to some of the world’s most marginalised communities. But there is a hint of caution in these pages too. All this is possible, but only if we work hard to make it happen. And that’s the challenge for all of us, travellers and operators alike.
Published January 2015
Edited by: Ethan Gelber
Published by: Horizon Travel Press / Inspired Escapes