Are you attracted by the idea of helping desperate people in Haiti or working with an orphanage in Nepal? The concept of volunteer tourism or voluntourism is a noble and worthy one. But when I started to investigate, I realized that there are some uncomfortable truths that have to be faced before volunteering.

I was shocked to realize what big business this has become. There are well over one and a half million tourists (mostly college students and retirees) who offer their services worldwide every year which is worth about $2 billion. These are the figures quoted in a book Volunteer Tourism- A Global Analysis which provides a fascinating insight into what is often a very murky business, unfortunately.

1. Do you know anything about the volunteer organization?

There are excellent bodies doing Trojan work out there. But there are also some very shady operators who are exploiting, not only the well meaning tourists but the poor people, children and the homeless in the developing world. Here are a few examples:

  • Costs are high – staff and resources have to be found. Is this the best use of the time and money spent?
  • Many of the 800 orphanages in Nepal, for example, are bogus institutions and unregulated.
  • Unscrupulous operators trick poor people into sending their children to be educated in one of these institutions. In reality, they are neither educated nor fed properly.
  • One Unicef report found that 85% of the children in these so called orphanages in Nepal had at least one living parent.

2. Why not send money instead?

One volunteer who worked in post earthquake Haiti, helping to rebuild homes, found that the actual cost was almost $1,000 per volunteer. Half of that money was spent on building materials and hiring local construction workers. The other half was spent on feeding and housing the volunteers. This volunteer was convinced that sending all the money would have been much more helpful in the long run.

3. Children are abandoned

The volunteers are encouraged, when working in the orphanages, to bond with the children to strengthen the emotional attachment. This, in my view, is a particularly useless and cruel approach. The volunteers will abandon the vulnerable and needy children, once they leave. Many children suffer the trauma of another separation as they are abandoned yet again!

4. Employment could be given to local people

Many volunteers turn up to roll up their sleeves for tough manual or skilled work. There are local, unemployed people who could easily do the work and be paid a fair wage. This would really help to make a difference. The volunteers arrive, work like slaves and leave without making any impact at all on the local economy. In many ways, they have made a bad situation worse!

5. Are you encouraging a new type of colonialism?

Throughout Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, many countries are still struggling to shake off the shackles of colonialism which have left many unwelcome legacies. Volunteer tourism can interfere with this process of independent and positive growth. This should include long term strategies and help people develop new skills to face local economic challenges. The fact that volunteers are trying to feel good by working in the field is often a hindrance. Much better to do some serious fundraising at home.

6. Are your skills a match for the job?

Most student volunteers know nothing about building or child-rearing. In many cases, senior citizens or retirees are better placed here as they have considerable experience in various jobs and will have a better skills match.  If you are considering voluntourism, think about the project and what skills are required. What are your language skills, social skills, parenting experience, manual skills, and so on? Then, honestly reflect on whether you would be really useful or not

 7. Volunteers come first

“It’s done for the experience of the volunteer. It’s all about the volunteer, with the pretense of helping someone, and I don’t buy it.”- Roger O’Halloran, director of PALMS International.

Many volunteers are accepted and their needs seem to come first. Lots of expense, time and effort are put into making their experience a memorable and self fulfilling one. They are offered a unique experience which their cosseted upbringing has never allowed. The actual recipients of the aid come a very poor second.

8. Who is really benefiting?

Did you know that many of the ‘fake’ orphans I mentioned above are often cast out on the streets, once the volunteer tourist project ends? They will be forced to beg and be forced into prostitution. This is the time to think about the middlemen and how these organizations are run. Who is really gaining? Very often, the middlemen, travel agencies, and so called institutions are gaining a lot of ready cash.

9. Are you willing to be complicit in child trafficking?

This is the most serious issue of all. Many volunteers are unwittingly entering into the murky world where children are exploited, abused and trafficked. They would be shocked to find out what is really going on.

10. 10 things to check out before volunteering

  1. Check out the organization you hope to work with. Ask a lot of questions, especially about employing locals, skills sets and costs. You need to know if they are reputable and reliable.
  2. Visit their website and their Facebook page. This is a good way of connecting with past volunteers and learning from them.
  3. Learn about the country you hope to visit. Study the history, culture and economic situation.
  4. Examine honestly your motives and ethics in volunteering. If you are looking for photo-ops, it may be best to consider something else.
  5. If the organization is a religious one, are you comfortable with any preaching or evangelism to be done?
  6. Ask about support and training you will receive if you do decide to go.
  7. Find out about their finances and their involvement with local NGOs. You may want to check out what their goals, ethics and values are.
  8. Be very clear on what the project hopes to achieve and how it will help local initiatives/employment after you leave.
  9. If you decide not to go, consider other ways you can help the organization if you feel it is a worthy one. Do you have IT skills where you could build a website for them?
  10. Consider a financial donation, if you feel that your skills set and physique are not up to it. Check out how they manage their funds, if you can.

Voluntourism is great, if it is carried out responsibly with local people’s needs in mind. If not, it may well be a scam that should be avoided at all costs.

Featured photo credit: Group 20 -015/Visions Service Adventures via flickr.com

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