To read before engaging in Volunteer tourism

Helping or Learning?

Over the past decade, the practice of including a volunteering (or service experience) component as part of a holiday has become increasingly popular. The number of agents and programme providers introducing new so called voluntourism products is growing exponentially. And youth in their gap year, intend to go around the world to help and serve with good intentions.

There is a growing trend to denounce the efficiency of volunteer tourism and its negative impacts both on the local communities, such as on children being visited while in schools by successive so called teachers without any former experience of teaching, and on tourists as they may, for most of them, end up with a cultural shock. Many are young visitors in their gap year who have never been in developing countries and have no idea what to expect, how to behave and even if when they are properly briefed in advance, they certainly cannot apprehend the local customs & traditions of a hill tribe or poor community in a foreign country.

Then in the name of what tourists would pay to help? Is it a right message to give to local communities that foreigners will just come and do the work they could do by themselves and on top of it they will pay to do it? Some call it a new form of colonialism as many pretend to come to help, but it is more likely that the tourists will learn more than their hosts, who is helping whom? We believe exchange is the key to fruitful intercultural relationships, assisting local communities as if they were handicapped such as in the construction of houses, is detrimental to their empowerment, and in the long run may well affect their sense of initiatives. There are so many of these well intentioned  ‘charitable behaviours’ which in reality precisely create the adverse impact, just as when  giving money, candies or pens to children.

Building social houses for local projetcs

Such exposure to the western consumer world which any youth embodies without even being aware as they are so used to it, may have very negative impacts on poor or remote communities.

We did not want to totally eliminate volunteer tourism so we decided to post here a few who are specialised in that segment and seem the most serious we could identify. Note that now most tour operators include this type of holiday as it is becoming a lucrative segment.

We invite you to be fully aware of the pros and cons; and of the consequences of your volunteering. Is it really going to help or dissipate your sense of western guilt?, Would you like your children to get regular visits to their class by foreign youth coming without any teaching background  and teach your kids?  Do you think it is appropriate to be pretending to teach locals?

The following article published in the Guardian www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jul/30/gap-year-volunteers-demos and the recently released report by Demos www.demos.co.uk/publications/service-international tells it clearly, beware of volunteer tourism.

And if you are really convinced this is what you want to do, please read below.

This emergent market is currently unregulated and, as such, the opportunity exists for unscrupulous operators to take advantage of well-intentioned customers. To guard against this, they should use the following criteria when evaluating any programme they are offered before signing up for it.

1.       MUTUAL BENEFIT – TRADE vs AID

Does the programme offer a fair exchange in terms of the benefits it provides to both those in the host community / individual business / project and the volunteers themselves?

2.       APPROPRIACY – FUNDING vs a HANDS ON ROLE

Does the hands-on intervention of a foreign volunteer offer the most appropriate solution to the particular problem being addressed, or would a monetary donation be more effective? The latter could provide training and employment opportunities for local people to deliver the service to their own people on a less dependent, more sustainable basis.

3.       TRANSPARENCY
Is the potential volunteer provided with a detailed and transparent breakdown of exactly where and how their money is to be spent? There is strong evidence that some agents hide huge profit margins under administrative and overhead costs. Do demand an itemised declaration of the following: pre-programme training or materials, transport, accommodation, meals, onsite supervision of volunteers, marketing of the programme as well as a breakdown of the administrative fees, salaries and overhead costs. Be extremely suspicious of any operator that does not provide this.

4.       SAFETY & SERVICE STANDARD

What is the standard of transport, accommodation, meals, safety etc provided by the agent / operators? Evaluate each of these factors on the basis of its value for money.

5.       MORE BANG FOR YOUR BUCK

Internet-based fundraising and the use of local (as opposed to International based) providers greatly reduces the overhead costs incurred by those offering all forms of volunteer programmes. Volunteer programmes in support of small & medium sized tourism business development enterprises (SMEs) that include a local tour operator as a stakeholder or sponsor offer several unique advantages:

  • The local tour operator can sponsor the administrative & overhead costs allowing a higher amount of the funding to reach the front line – the local community where it has a significant multiplier effect on local businesses.
  • It builds SME-based tourism, creating opportunities and employment at a local level.