Lend a hand: Is voluntourism the right thing to do?
The vilification of the 'voluntourism' trend does not seem to have stunted its growth. In 2015, the industry was valued at $173m. But is lending a hand really the right thing to do?
We talked to two experts, who explained why paying to spend six months building schools, tracking turtles or teaching orphans might not be straightforwardly selfless. If you are a exponent of eco travel who wants to give a little back, as well as get something out of, your time abroad you will want to take note.
Mon 20 Feb 2017
We look at different opinions on the voluntary controversy, as well as the differing tactics with which their organisations tackle the industry's dark side. Based on our two experts' advice, we lay out the steps you can take to avoid an inauthentic experience that hurts, rather than helps, a cause you sought to serve.
Introducing the volunteering industry insiders
Steve Gwenin, CEO at GVI (who has worked on projects in Fiji, Costa Rica, Laos and Mexico among others), reckons you have to be project-wise when it comes to booking a volunteering experience. GVI has run community and conservation development projects since 1998 and partners with Save the Children and the WWF.
“We’re very careful with the projects we choose, we make sure they have set objectives (whether it’s five months or five years) and we have an exit plan so we can assist them, achieve the goal and move on - we’re not just helping out for the sake of it,” he explains.
Image CEOs Willy Oppenheim (left) and Steve Gwenin (right) are changing the face of volunteering
Willy Oppenheim at Omprakash started as a list of organisations in India that needed help, personally vetted by Oppenheim, after he found the entire volunteering experience lacking in authenticity and too commercialised. A decade later it now spans 40 countries with job listings for 160 organisations.
“You don’t buy an opportunity from us and you’re not communicating with me,” he explains. “You’re applying directly to these different organisations which crucially have the power to reject you."
The downsides to voluntourism
1. The voluntourists themselves
The last couple of years have seen valid debate about the authenticity of the 'help' provided by volunteers. Are well-meaning, but essentially under-qualified, people at all helpful when it comes to building, teaching and caring? And more worryingly, could their impact actually have negative effects?
2. The scams
The world’s not short on savvy operators, keen to make a quick buck out of a growing interest in sustainable travel, conservation and giving back. Investigations have uncovered a range of scams, such as the Nepalese orphans rented from their real parents to be cared for by volunteers, netting the scammers a healthy but well meant pile of cash. Sadly, they’re not the only ones.
3. The volunteering organisations
Oppenheim has a clear stance on what he deems to be a middle man matter. He believes that commercialising a volunteering project can just lead to problems, “If the host organisation’s income stream is based around people coming out to help, then they’re incentivised to invite you to come, whether they need you or not, whether you’re actually helping or not. The lack of direct correspondence between an organisation and a volunteer is crucially problematic. There’s a million dollar industry built around selling placements - the middle man is selling you a trip so they need to tell you you’re helpful.”
"There’s no point going abroad to help ‘poor people’ and think you’re going to save the world...but there’s nothing wrong with identifying what you want to get out of a trip and focusing on something specific" - Willy Oppenheim
GVI and Omprakash combat these concerns in different ways
As an organisation, Omprakash aims to break the problematic cycle mentioned above. Oppenheim explains that:
“You don’t buy an opportunity from us and you’re not communicating with me. You’re applying directly to these different organisations which crucially have the power to reject you."
Gwenin reckons you have to be 'project-wise' when it comes to booking a volunteering experience.
“We’re very careful with the projects we choose, we make sure they have set objectives (whether it’s five months or five years) and we have an exit plan so we can assist them, achieve the goal and move on - we’re not just helping out for the sake of it,” he says.
Is your philanthropic bubble feeling a little deflated?
The issues are serious and daunting, but don't despair just yet. There are precautions you can take ensure you volunteer responsibly.
When researching a potential placement, run through the checklist we have put together below. Considering each question should help you calculate whether a given voluntary venture is truly the right thing for you to do.
The charitable checklist
1. Is the organisation trustworthy?
Conducting a comprehensive background check on the organisation you are considering signing up with is essential. This means:
- Sifting through the data surrounding a chosen charity or project.
- Assessing an organisation's local partners.
- the operator they are working with to ensure it’s above board
Here is Oppenheim's take, and how he appraises his companies:
“If it’s a brand new organisation then it probably won’t meet our standards. This isn’t the Yellow Pages, we don’t just list anyone. We need to see mission statements, company organisation charts, a track record of achievement and a financial sustainability plan. The point is if the organisation revolves around charging money to volunteers then it’s a non-starter to us.”
2. Could you be taking a job away from a local person?
Making sure your 'worthwhile' experience is not a scam is just the tip of the iceberg. Whether volunteers actually take jobs away from existing labourers or local professionals is a valid concern. From Haiti to Indonesia, well meaning tourists have been drafted in because they are willing to pay to perform a role that a local might be paid to do.
“You need to look closely at organisations who are working with quality local partners and what they’ve achieved,” says Gwenin. “There are a lot of organisations involved commercially but how well do they know their projects on the ground and how high up their agenda is doing good?”
3. Who and how do you want to help?
Another problem with voluntourism, is that sometimes travellers are guilty of having woolly ideas about welfare. Being vague about what kind of aid you want to provide, why you want to bestow it, and to whom is a recipe for an unsuccessful experience. A bit of soul searching is required.
Ask which issues really matter to you, and why? If you feel compelled to devote your time to an enterprise, and you care about the outcome, both parties should profit.
Omprakash negates this issue by making sure that each volunteer applies for a set role and is interviewed by the local organisation. This ensures they have the right qualifications to be helpful, and are not merely full of good intentions:
“The placement model doesn’t work for us. If I want to intern in an organisation in Chicago then I apply to them and am rejected or accepted by them. So why is it different for an organisation that needs help abroad? You don’t just want to pick something vague, enter your credit card details and click apply.”
Gwenin has his own filter system for GVI. He has:
- Narrowed down the range of projects GVI assists with
- Pinned his organisation's objectives to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals
- Developed a means of tracking each project's progress at a local level, to ensure they are fulfilling their mission
“All of our projects are directed by local organisations, NGOs and agencies - they’re directing the work they need done but our teams manage the volunteers so we’re not taking work away from people on the ground,” he explains.
4. Paying for support vs. figuring it out for free?
The two companies differ on whether volunteers should pay them for their experience. As we mentioned earlier, GVI believes that low costs are driving less honest placements and place a financial value on your experience because it balances out the work and resources you’re taking away from someone else. Omprakash, on the other hand, believes that cost shouldn’t factor into it at all. He adopts the following standpoint:
“It’s not about paying for organisations to find you something to do,” he says. “Our model is such that we don’t fly chaperones round the world or a have a huge office to administer applications. We don’t need to pass any costs on to the customer.”
In line with the company’s ethos, volunteers make all their arrangements directly with the organisation they’ve been hired by, rather that using local or international partners or support staff.
“It might lead to moments of cross cultural misunderstanding but that’s the point, that’s what travel is about,” he says. “In the event an emergency in Nepal for example, I don’t want help from a chaperone who has been to the country three times, I want help from my local host who has spent their whole life there.”
Gwenin sees things differently:
“Unless you’re experienced in cross-cultural communication and logistics or have a particular skill you’re going to need a support network and have resources to help you,” says Gwenin. “I think it’s good for the volunteers to have international support and western style health and safety measures, which aren’t always there if you just work with a local partner.”
So this is something else to consider for yourself.
Would you rather pay for peace of mind, and keep help from home on hand? Or do you want to throw yourself in and grow from potential cultural clashes?
5. Do you have realistic expectations about your potential impact?
Some voluntourists carry rather lofty and misconceived ideas about how much of a mark they can make. Sadly, however pure your intentions, you are not going to put an end to poverty in two weeks by helping to build a school. Oppenheim expresses his views on this privileged mindset it a little more strongly...
“There’s no point going abroad to help ‘poor people’ and think you’re going to save the world. All of that is related to this large neo-colonial assumption that the world is full of desperate people waiting for you to rock up for two weeks,” says Oppenheim. He concludes that, “There’s nothing wrong with identifying what you want to get out of a trip and focusing on something specific."
Which leads us on to our final point
6. Have you thought about your personal prospects?
GVI are adamant that, when it comes to careers, 2019 is the year to volunteer.
not just about helping to create a practical solution to a problem. There’s a growing focus on the personal development voluntourism gifts young people about to enter into a competitive career market. It’s now seen as a showcase for extrapolating soft skills in order to improve employability, especially among a millennial audience.
“We’re going more towards education than just volunteering alone. After price, this is what more and more people want to focus on,” explains Gwenin.
Both GVI and Omprakash are turning the spotlight on how to engage and educate the person going away, as much as the practical benefit of their experience at their destination.
Omprakash has an educational initiative called 'Edge'. Each volunteer assigned to this project follows a three part programme that covers the before, during and after of their trip. It involves:
- Reflecting on the power dynamic of modern volunteering
- Studying the history of international development
- Using research methods to document experiences
Oppenheim explains the thinking behind this program as follows:
“Instead of coming home with just a sentimental narrative and the fact they had a good time, they come home being able to talk about the core issues and challenges and can take further action.”
It is no secret that the environment needs all the eager brains it can get, and GVI sees voluntourism as a means of achieving this. Gwenin considers it an essential funnel that could draw more people towards environmental work both in the public and private sector:
“In the next century we’re going to face the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced - and whether we survive or not is down to how innovative we are. 60% of our staff come out of our alumni so if you want to get involved in this field professionally then it’s a proven route to work."
GVI's educational internships earn volunteers academic accreditation with a number of universities across a range of fields.
“We used to see a lot more volunteers just coming out to do good for the sake of it but now people want to get something more concrete back, which is good because it means they will stay involved in the sector.”
Summing up the the voluntourism conundrum
Evidently, there are complex issues surrounding voluntourism. Does this mean you should just give up and not bother to board the plane?
We don't think so. By pondering the questions we have posed, you can make sure your motives measure up. Understanding your interests, priorities and the risks surrounding irresponsible volunteering should empower you to embark on a potentially formative trip that also supports a wider, worthwhile scheme.
Want to be inspired for other eco-travel ideas?
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