Volunteer work in a foreign country conjures images of travellers working with some of the poorest members of our global community and striving to help make a difference to their lives. As I mentioned in my previous post, volunteering can also be an amazing thing to undertake as a family. It can be a fabulous, life-changing experience and allow those involved to open their hearts and minds in ways never before imagined.
However, the reality of volunteering abroad has changed drastically over the last few decades, and sometimes the projects of “voluntourism” have damaging effects on communities, rendering the efforts of volunteers obsolete.
What are the main issues and effects that volunteering tourism has on communities? And what can you do to mitigate these and help ensure that a family volunteer trip is beneficial to everyone involved?
What are the issues?
In the past, volunteering holidays were undertaken by skilled, qualified personnel, whether from medical, engineering, or teaching backgrounds, who embarked upon career breaks to use their personal work skills to make a marked difference to the lives of those in the greatest need of their help.
Over time there has been a shift; volunteering abroad is not as exclusive as it once was. “Voluntourism” is on the rise and is often a staple of people’s gap-year holidays and CVs to show they have a well-rounded personality and a caring nature for individuals before entering the job market.
However, this commercialisation has led to a whole host of problems for the communities where these projects take place.
Imagine the following scenario: You are told that a stranger will be spending time with and often sleeping on the same property as your child. Add in further worrying that this stranger has most likely just arrived from another country, unaware of your culture and customs, probably unable to communicate with your child, and with no actual childcare qualifications or experience. You are not aware of the checks, the vetting, and the suitability of these individuals to do the jobs they are enrolled to do, but you are supposed to accept these strangers and voice no concern for your child.
How would you react to this scenario? It would be a definite no for most parents until lots of further information was provided, yet on a daily basis hundreds of families face this exact situation in communities across the globe without any questions arising.
Financial Gain Over True Help
With the continuing surge in this area of the travel industry, there has seen a corresponding increase in commercial companies using this opportunity to maximise financial gain.
Statistics from numerous reports indicate heartbreaking evidence that these communities are having further suffering added to their daily lives with the increase of voluntourism. Sickening figures have emerged, including that over 70% of all children in Cambodian orphanages actually have living parents. Many poor parents who are unable to provide for their children’s futures give them away on false pretenses and promises of a good education, accommodations, and better living standards.
In reality these children are often forced to live in treacherous conditions as the companies hope to elicit greater donations and funds from Western volunteers once they see children in such suffering. There are reports from many communities that children are abducted and taken from family homes in order for additional orphanages to be created to help fuel and meet the increasing demands of volunteering.
This image is a far cry from what we have in our minds, and these issues are what we as travellers need to be wary of.
How can volunteers help?
Prior to booking any volunteer projects, potential volunteers should assess what difference they can make to the communities they hope to support. Are there any skills they possess that will help the communities they are visiting? What is the project they are helping with? If they do not possess the skills to undertake this project, what do they hope to achieve from the experience?
Volunteering has become very commercialised, and volunteers need to understand that their roles may be fueling this problem. It is imperative that volunteers have a correct and realistic mindset here. True volunteerism aims to help communities without the need for personal benefit; however, commercialisation of these projects results in volunteers benefiting most from these projects, rather than the communities with which they are engaging.
Always throughly check the company you’re using for a project, and verify the company that runs the project within the country you’ll be visiting. Read about the company’s policies, ethics, and responsibilities as well as what they aim to accomplish through their intended projects.
Check the standard for vetting and placing candidates, as this is illustrative of the ethos of the company. Some of the hardest working companies strive to thoroughly vet their volunteers and then allocate suitable projects based on their particular skill sets. Often, where a skill set is not suitable to a project, a potential volunteer will be turned away.
Should you volunteer abroad?
Yes, I may have painted a picture of doom and gloom, but volunteering abroad is still an amazing way for individuals and the global community to benefit. It’s especially rewarding for families!
It just needs to be executed in a responsible manner.
There are many skills that volunteers have to offer that are desperately needed in some communities. Volunteers need to ensure that they have done their utmost to work with companies striving to benefit the countries and communities that they are working with and not exploiting the most vulnerable for financial gain.