Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?



An increasing number of travellers are volunteering during their vacations, but sometimes they do more harm than good. The desire of so many travellers to go on a trip and at the same time do some good has fueled the industry of voluntourism: a number of companies now offer tourists the possibility to work on a variety of projects, from monitoring wildlife to teaching English. I am not a big fan of voluntourism, perhaps because thanks to my previous job experience I have a very clear and possibly strict idea of how volunteering should work. Most of the time, when I read about voluntourism programmes – ones that people pay for in order to join – I get really angry, as in my mind nobody should be made to pay in order to work. But there is more to it than just paying. My personal experience may help shed some light into my cynical views on voluntourism.

voluntourism

Is this cute child going to benefit from voluntourism?

I am a former human rights lawyer and researcher, I have spent most of my life working for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and International Organisations. In my years in the field, I have learned that every little bit helps, but that in order for that to really make a difference it has to be done a certain way that requires certain specific skills. That is why NGOs that work on human rights or sustainable development projects have a very tough selection process even for volunteering positions. The whole idea behind it is that volunteers can actually bring help to the community (rather than to a single individual), by spending a number of months (sometimes even years) working on projects that are long term. The same goes for organisations that work on the protection and care of animals. They do require real commitment and a certain number of skills too.

NGOs and voluntourism programmes

While working on the protection of the Roma minorities in Europe, I have had the chance to visit a number of Roma settlements. Every time I went to one of those settlements, I was overwhelmed by the amount of work there was to be done to achieve full integration of the Roma, and I was thankful that a number of volunteers would help in the daily issues that people living in those settlements would face – from taking the children to school, to running post-school play camps, to helping parents take the children to the doctors. Some of the work volunteers did was highly skilled – creating a play-camp for children meant having some sort of background in social work or education. But what mattered the most was the level of trust between the families and the volunteers, something that could only be achieved by devoting a lot of time and effort to the cause. Volunteering in this sense is a long term commitment, that goes well beyond the 2 or 3 weeks of voluntourism programmes.

Before deciding to give up my career in human rights law altogether, I applied to work as a “volunteer” for Peace Brigades International in Colombia. This is a very reputable international NGO whose mission is “to open a space for peace in which conflicts can be dealt with non-violently” and which uses the strategy of international presence and concern that supports local initiatives and aims to develop a culture of peace and justice. PBI is present in Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Nepal.

voluntourism

Wildlife conservation programmes are very popular in voluntourism

The application to work as a volunteer and the selection process was a long and strenuous one. I thought that, with all my skills and expertise, it would not be hard to become a volunteer for PBI. I was wrong! The application required me to fill in a number of documents, write essays, get reference letters from my previous work supervisors. I was then selected for a skype interview which was successful and, subsequent to that, over a number of months, I was given various assignments that involved a lot of studying and writing about the political, social and human rights situation in Colombia. Provided that my work was satisfactory I would then be selected for the final training before being sent to Colombia, where I was expected to live and work for at least 18 months, having my flight and living expenses covered and a small stipend each month.

The overall selection process lasted 10 months. I was eventually accepted, but decided not to go in the end, as I was unsure I would be able to commit myself for the minimum 18 months required and I was considering having a career change (which then brought me to blogging, but that is a different story). It was out of respect for the organisation and their incredible work that I decided not to go in the end. I saw how much effort they put in selecting suitable volunteers and I would feel irresponsible to let them down while they most needed me.

Volunteering while travelling, or travelling to volunteer – voluntourism

A number of travellers and backpackers on a tight budget opt to work while on the road, to save some money here and there on food and accommodation. Quite a few of them pick up jobs in hostels, occasionally in bars, and others opt to work in farms, on a number of projects that go from permaculture to actually helping build a home. Sure, working a few hours per day in exchange of a bed can be useful – one can get some work experience, learn new skills and even meet some interesting people. However, there are no real projects let alone missions that benefit a community. A volunteer in a hostel has the unique mission of making sure that the employer saves money from actually employing (and paying) a local. Because really, all the employer is providing in exchange of the hours worked is usually just a bed in a dorm, that would most likely not be rented anyways. To me, that can’t be called voluntourism, and for sure it does not even remotely resemble volunteering because there is no community benefit but just a business agenda.

Voluntourism with children

Voluntourism with children

Regardless of what I consider or not as proper volunteering, I was keen to save some pennies during my travels in Central America, and I made a few attempts at working while on the road. I failed miserably. I suppose that someone with my kind of background really has high expectations when it comes to projects in so called volunteering. I don’t mind manual job, really. But I did not see much sense in having to scrub the dirtiest kitchen and doing other heavy manual jobs (some of them actually requiring specific skills such as those of a plumber or a construction worker, which I do not have) in what was only pretending to be a permaculture farm and where the only long term plan was to eventually make profits.

To me, that was not volunteering, but it was the attempt of a person who could not afford to run her own business to get it up and running without investing a minimum amount of time, effort and money on it. It may be an overly cynical way to see things, but I was not getting anything out of it other than a bed and an amount of food that was insufficient even to a small girl like I am. There was certainly no tourism attached to it as the area was so isolated that it was impossible to even just go on a day trip on the only free day I had per week. I was certainly not learning anything new. And sure enough I was not helping a community. All I was doing was helping a person in getting her profitable business up and running. It really looked and felt like slavery. So I left.

Voluntourism

In recent years, it has become more and more fashionable to join volunteering programmes in developing countries, and voluntourism has become a new way to travel. So much so that even leading tour operators organise trips that take people to working camps. These programmes imply that the volunteer pays a fee to travel to said country, receive accommodation and food and work in a community. The companies organising the trips actually do make profits from it and the thought of it makes me shiver altogether, as I get the impression that they are cheating reputable NGOs who have significant projects that aim at improving the lives of people, and end up giving people the wrong idea of what volunteering is all about.

Mind you, it is not only big tour operators that attract travellers willing to volunteer. Small or large companies that try to make a profit from “exploiting” the volounturism trend are hidden everywhere on the web, even on sites that are beyond any suspicion of wanting to make profits. Again, my experience in this sense is a useful example.

Before embarking on my big backpacking trip through Central America, I considered a few options that may help me save a bit of money and thus allow me to travel for a longer time. The first obvious place to look to me was Couchsurfing, a hospitality exchange and social networking website that provides a platform for members to stay as a guest at a host’s home for free. If used in the right way, it is a great means to meet the locals, to have a real cultural exchange and to share experiences. As I looked for places to stay in Santa Elena, Guatemala, I stumbled upon an inviting profile: a local family offered to host travellers and it seemed like a genuine place to stay. I asked to be hosted and in turn I was sent back to another page that publicised working camps and which clearly highlighted the fees to pay in order to participate.

It was fairly simple: whoever wanted to be hosted by a local family and “volunteer” would have to pay a fee to cover accommodation and living expenses. The higher the fee, the better the accommodation. But what I found most interesting was that the higher the fee paid was, the less amount of hours one was expected to work. It pretty much looked like paying was a way to bail oneself out of work.

I am not exactly a beginner traveller, but I must say even I was tempted at the idea of living with a local family for one or two weeks. But then I thought: “wait a second, why would I have to pay to work, and why the more I pay, the less I have to work?” To me, this really deceived the whole purpose of volunteering. Besides, what I really disliked and found distasteful was the fact that that company (a small, local company) used a platform like Couchsurfing for its marketing purposes in the sneakiest kind of way. Mind you, this is not uncommon, and in fact I came across other individuals who used Couchsurfing to promote their business (ie camping sites). So, I did the only sensible thing I could do in this case: I reported the profile and Couchsurfing (which are great at responding) immediately took it down. But I am pretty sure that, if even a seasoned traveller like I am was lurked into reading that page, many younger ones actually fell for the trap.

voluntourism

There are plenty of voluntourism programmes for wildlife conservation – courtesy of George Kenyon

Finding a good voluntourism programme

What is important to keep in mind when considering voluntourism programmes is that large NGOs usually cover transportation and accommodation fees for qualified workers such as doctors, nurses, veterinarians and engineers, because they do need those skills and they can’t find them in the country where they are running their projects. They demand a strong commitment – as PBI did with me when I planned to work for them. Unskilled workers willing to volunteer – especially for smaller NGOs – on a short basis usually have to pay for their own expenses, or else that money could and should be used by the NGO to hire a local worker. And that is ok too.

I found myself discussing voluntourism with other travel bloggers, and most of us agreed that it is important that NGOs do hire local workers when they are looking for unskilled labour. These ideas should be the benchmark when it comes to volunteering, as Mike Huxley of Bemused Backpacker believes. Like me, Mike has participated in “real” volunteering projects with larger NGOs and he dislikes the concept and the ideas behind voluntourism. He thinks that it is morally wrong for companies such as tour operators to turn volunteering into a profitable business where there is no benefit to the community involved and where the volunteering is engineered in order to keep streams of revenue generating tourists coming in to do jobs that really make no difference.

The fact that I am so cynical in my views on voluntourism doesn’t mean I am completely against it. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I think that, provided that it is done in the right ways and with the right mindframe, it is a great and enriching experience both for the volunteer and for the community, and even if done for a short term. So, here are a few simple tips to help choosing the right volunteering programme.

Look for a reputable organisation: biggest and best known NGOs, International Organisations and charities may be more difficult to get in, the application process may be more time consuming and the level of commitment higher, but they have meaningful programmes that really do make a difference and working for them is an enriching experience that actually also looks good on the curriculum. A good charity will not demand a fee in order to volunteer but may expect volunteers to cover their own expenses if they commit for a short time.

Check the programme and the mission of the organisation: a reputable organisation will have a clear mission statement and a very specific programme highlighting why the work of volunteers is needed, how the local community will benefit from it, and why locals can’t be hired for the same job. Is the programme actually sustainable?

Ask the right questions, and be honest in answering them. Questions to be asked include: why do I want to volunteer? Is the community going to benefit from my work and from the programme in the long term? Is there any possibility that I may do more harm than good? Am I stopping a local from being hired to do the same job? Do I have the necessary skills? How long can I commit for? Will I learn anything new?

Finally, before travelling to a far away country to join a volunteering programme, make sure to read a lot about that country, its community, its way of life, its history and culture.

Have you ever volunteered in a foreign country? What are your thoughts on voluntourism? Let me know in the comments below!


 


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33 Comments

  • Michael Huxley
    14 July 2015 at 3:39

    Great article, I don’t think it is an overly cynical way of seeing things at all, or if it is I definitely share your cynicism.

    One of the big problems of voluntourism now is the appropriation and misuse of the term. So many for profit industry companies use it to greenwash their for profit travel experiences, and so many local businesses use it as a way to get free labour – as you mentioned – that the term in many ways has become almost meaningless. I’d say a majority of ‘volunteering’ opportunities out there aren’t volunteering in any way shape or form. They don’t conform to the basic principles of what volunteering should be, selfless work that benefits and empowers a local community or cause, work that becomes ultimately self sustaining and is based around ever changing community need, not the task orientated ‘paint a school’ mentality.

    I’m a nurse and a medic, and have volunteered all over the world on this basis as an expedition medic, giving out vaccines, education etc. And I am totally with you on the highly skilled component of volunteering with genuine NGOs and orgs. That isn’t to say there isn’t room for those who don’t have specific skills or qualifications too, of course there is, but as you rightly say they must go through the rigorous application process that will determine where and how they can do the most good. It isn’t just a case of Western paternalism, where so called ‘volunteers’ rock up to any given country and expect to be able to help just on the basis that they are travellers! Where anyone thinks that without any skills, training or quals they can cuddle a baby orang and save all the poor people in the world just because they are a Westerner. It isn’t about fulfilling some sort of selfish need to ‘do good’, or at the very least be seen to be doing good so you can get a few nice selfies for social media.

    It’s time the term volunteering was taken away from the gap year industry and reclaimed for true and genuine volunteering NGOs.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      15 July 2015 at 14:55

      Thank you for your comment Mike. You mentioned the word “empowerment” and that is what NGOs really work on, and what volunteers should be looking to do. I remember years ago, when I was teaching, one of my students had lots of experience in the field in Palestine and she said that at times it was more useful to know how to change a light bulb than what the rules of engagement were. But good organisations value skilled labour. The thing is, that skilled worker may well find himself changing a light bulb, but that should not be his purpose!

      People who really want to volunteer can actually do so in their home countries. I have volunteered for years here in Sardinia at local animal shelters or even with asylum seekers. Just because I did not travel far to a war thorn country this doesn’t make my experience less meaningful!

  • Kirstie
    15 July 2015 at 1:24

    I just read the post on Bemused Backpacker about voluntourism, and your two posts are really opening my eyes to what some of these so-called “volunteer” programs are really about. I haven’t participated in any voluntourism programs but hope to in the future, so I’ll definitely be giving the specific programs a lot more thought now that I’ve read your perspective.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      15 July 2015 at 14:49

      Thank you Kirstie. I should actually thank Mike as he got me thinking about the issue and finally gave me the push to write about it from my very own perspective. I also read his post, which is an excellent research of what really is behind it.

  • Brianna
    15 July 2015 at 2:44

    I’ve read of “volunteer organizations” that charge a hefty fee and actually are detrimental to the communities they purportedly serve. You really have to research before you go.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      15 July 2015 at 14:48

      Indeed – that is key to making the right choices, and not just for those who travel but for the communities that are meant to benefit from the volunteers

  • Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru
    15 July 2015 at 11:08

    This is an excellent post. I think people really want to do good, but there are degrees of desire. Commercial voluntourism allows those who want to self-promote the opportunity to have a “slactivist” experience and feel good about themselves. There is no emphasis on authenticity or real benefit to those in need, who may not actually be as needy as advertised. Spreading awareness, such as your post does, may or may not have an impact on slactivism, but it’s a very important message.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      15 July 2015 at 14:50

      Slactivism. Betsy, I LOVE this word!

  • dannielle
    18 July 2015 at 10:42

    This was a really informative read. It’s something I’ve always been suspicious of so I found it helpful to read the experience of someone educated on the topic as I haven’t done real research. I can’t agree with paying to help because I think it means those in a position of privilege end up doing these projects to flatter their own ego and put something nice on their cv. I would always do extensive research to make sure the program actual helped.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      20 July 2015 at 8:48

      That is the right spirit!

  • Toni | 2 Aussie Travellers
    18 July 2015 at 11:13

    Unfortunately way to many people are being taken in by ‘voluntourism’ believing they are putting their time and money into helping a community when the ones most often benefiting are the business, and most of them are businesses not NPO’s, who are running it. More often than not the volunteers are putting more of a tax on the the local community than they are helping it. Yes of course there are exceptions but the organisations that are doing it are spending a lot to make sure their offering looks legitimate and people, both the communities and volunteers, are being taken advantage of.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      20 July 2015 at 8:49

      And that is sick! Isn’t it?

  • Jen Seligmann
    18 July 2015 at 11:32

    Very eye opening read. I’ve never volunteered at one of these programs before but have contemplated it in the past. I don’t really know where I stand on all this just yet but you’ve given me a lot to think about as I’d never really thought of any opportunity to volunteer as a bad thing. Not saying I disagree with any of this, just that it has never truly crossed my mind before which is probably the same as a lot of other travellers out there. I think it is great that yourself and Mike have both written about this so that more people will stop and think before entering into a voluneer program that could be doing more harm than good.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      20 July 2015 at 8:49

      That’s exactly what we both meant to do

  • megsy
    18 July 2015 at 12:11

    Great post! We really wanted to take some time out to volunteer during our travels, but the more we looked into it it all many seemed like a sham. Thank you for putting together an informative post so others can see exactly what to look out for.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      20 July 2015 at 8:50

      Make sure that you look around for good NGOs 🙂

  • Anne Klien ( MeAnne)
    18 July 2015 at 15:11

    Its abit hard to find a suitable place to do volunteering now a days. … some places they are just mainly for profits which is abit sad.

  • yvonnelaura
    18 July 2015 at 20:12

    Great article! I;ve never read much about voluntourism or volunteering at all, as I don’t want to do that right now, but it is good to read something about it and to learn. Very eyeopening!

  • Heather Widmer
    19 July 2015 at 11:45

    Excellent article, I gained a wealth of knowledge from reading this. I’ve always been skeptical of a lot of voluntourism programs exactly for the reasons you highlighted. One aspect I never thought of was taking the work away from a local person. You’re right, the goal should be to empower the people in the communities.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      20 July 2015 at 8:51

      Exactly. If a local can be employed – and PAID – so that he or she can support the family, it just is counterproductive to hire volunteers

  • zof
    19 July 2015 at 17:49

    I was truly amazed by the idea of volontourism several years ago. Then I did my reasearch and I’ve been skeptical ever since. I know it’s still possible to find good programmes that are beneficial to the local community, but to discover them you need tons of knowledge and awareness. That’s why I really appreciate your article. Bloggers are the first who should raise this issue and spread awareness among their readers.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      20 July 2015 at 8:52

      Like 🙂 Indeed. And instead, there are some who work FOR FREE to attract people into volunteering programmes which volunteers have to pay for. Trust me, I have seen it!

  • Natalie - From Tourist 2 Local
    19 July 2015 at 18:35

    That is really interesting. I think you have shed light on something that happens more often than we think. I have never volunteered, but I have thought about doing a volunteer program in Africa at one point. I was also then surprised that you have to pay to be allowed to volunteer in certain places. I think there are a lot of good programs out there, but hopefully we look more into the qualifications and background of the program itself before we make any decisions. Thanks for this article. It is really helpful : )

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      20 July 2015 at 8:53

      Thank you Natalie. What people should understand is that looking for a good programme is like looking for a job

  • Kate
    19 July 2015 at 22:01

    Great article with some good alternative ideas for people who do want to give back during travels. I’m cautious of being too cynical about this area as it could have the adverse effect of people feeling like they don’t want to volunteer. I think pushing the good companies/NGOs is the way to go. Hopefully there will be more information on how to select volunteering programmes and what options there are to help guide people. After all, there is good and bad in every sector. Thanks for sharing

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      20 July 2015 at 8:54

      If you read Mike’s post on this (he commented above!) you can find some good sites 🙂

  • Gloria @NomadicChica
    19 July 2015 at 22:28

    Loved your article Claudia. I think alike about this topic and also kind of bothers me when tourism companies make a profit from people wanting to help. I have same opinion: why should you pay for volunteering? You are already helping with your time and knowledge! I feel not alone after reading you and others opinions. Hopefully those travelers cravibg to help will be more concious on who are they choosing to work with and make the gift of their time to really help a community or a project that is worth it and not only making easy money for few people.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      20 July 2015 at 8:55

      There’s a lot of us with this opinion. I didn’t know about it, until I wrote this piece myself and all your nice comments 🙂

  • Aileen
    20 July 2015 at 1:25

    Very helpful post! I haven’t tried volunteerism yet but have once thought of doing so — and will most likely try it in the future. Needless to say, the realities that you posted here would really help a lot in making responsible choices.

  • Jen
    23 July 2015 at 13:36

    Finding a non sketchy group is kinda key. I think starting with a place that doesn’t charge a fee is a good starting point, as is trying actual registered charities. It can be a lot of work to find a good one, though.

    I think I got lucky with the people I work with now. Lots of long and short placements, but they go to disaster – type places, where the locals are overwhelmed. I the local government has it in hand, they don’t set anything up. And when they do run a program, it’s either a short term, fast response to get people goin and stuff organized, or at this point a 9 month to two year project.

    And yeah, they hire locals where and when they can, and offer training for local people just like or even more than they do for outside vols. and they don’t charge a fee to play, though they encourage fundraising.

    Basically, they’ll be building sturdy temp housing, clearing rubble, building semi-permanent housing, and schools, in Nepal for the next two years. With more local workers as time goes on.

    I wouldn’t pay to volunteer. I might pay a fair share at local rates for room and board (the group I’m going laying with provides food and housing, but you’re free to live off base at your own expense) but not for the privilege of doing work for someone who should be paying a real worker.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      26 August 2015 at 22:13

      Exactly the point – and well, sounds like you are involved in a really good project!

  • tammyonthemove
    6 November 2015 at 10:53

    I am a strong advocate for volunteering and as a professional international development worker I agree that there are many dodgy organizations around that give the industry a bad name and that damage communities more than they do good. Paying thousands of Dollars to volunteer somewhere is very questionable, but I think it is ok to charge a small admin fee to cover costs related to looking after the volunteer. From my experience (working for two NGOs that worked with volunteers) NGOs who take on volunteers without experience tend to spend a lot of time (and therefore money) on training and looking after the volunteers. In that case I don’t think it is wrong to ask for a small fee to cover the admin costs.
    For professionals who have a lot of work experience and don’t need any guidance to do their placement, this fee is probably not necessary. I didn’t have to end up paying to volunteer in Peru for example, as they liked my CV and my experience and that was worth more to them than a $200 admin fee. In fact they even offered me a job afterwards. I have done a lot of experteering type voluntary placements (currently I am a United Nations volunteer for example), and I am also considering applying for PBI actually. I have been eyeing them out for years. I think their rigorous application process just shows how serious they are as an organization and so I see this as a positive thing. I think for professionals these type of placements are much better, for the volunteer AND the community they work with. Like you said, always do your research, check the finances through their annual reports, and ask how the placement and fees are benefiting the community you will be working with. If all of that is in order then voluntourism can be a rewarding experience.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      6 November 2015 at 13:15

      Ditto to this Tammy! I had applied to PBI Colombia and eventually got the “job” and refused it (I had other things on my mind) but I can say it is a long, difficult and demanding process that requires lots of work on both sides, the applicant and the NGO. Their work is outstanding!

      Admin fees are ok. I am mainly against the whole “work away” idea, or volunteering for what in reality are businesses that should have proper (paid) employees. And yes, paying TO to go volunteer too.

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