Voluntourism – yes, it’s a thing – is on the rise.
Young people, old people, families, corporations – so many are looking for more when they travel and they are choosing destinations where they can give back. But most don’t have a clue about how to be a responsible volunteer.
I’m going to be honest. One of the many reasons we chose to live in Cambodia is because it is a country with so much need and we felt we would be able to make a contribution. That said, it took many months for me to find an organisation I was comfortable with.
There has been much commentary on the downside of voluntourism; how it can be detrimental and is often more about feeding the egos of those taking part than offering gain to those in need. Sure, volunteering does feel good. It feels good to know you are making a difference. It feels good to be appreciated. It feels good to GIVE. But those who condemn it, suggest it is often a wasted exercise for many organisations and can cause more harm than good.
And to some degree that is true. But let’s not rush out and condemn all projects and all those involved. The fact is, many organisations desperately need volunteers and the skills they can offer. And many developing countries need the dollars that are brought in with these volunteers, who invariably eat at local restaurants, visit other parts of the country and contribute to the overall economy. And frankly, I’m not opposed to anyone enriching their life experience by trying to understand how others in the world live. I think it makes for better people, with more compassion and understanding.
But the naysayers are also right and while this supposedly richly rewarding experience can bring fulfilment to cashed-up westerners it can also feed the vultures who want to cash in on the generosity or those organisations that are completely ineffective and unsustainable due to a variety of reasons.
How to be a responsible volunteer:
- Choose a reputable organisation
First, do your research and make sure you choose the right organisation.
So what exactly is the right organisation I hear you asking and how do you know?
First off you want one that is ethical and has the interests of its subjects at hand. You want an organisation that is open and accountable and able to tell you where all the money goes, how they are providing benefit, how they run, what their plans for the future are and exactly what help they need. Look for an organisation that is accountable and sustainable and if it is not sustainable find out what action it is taking to become sustainable.
2. Don’t take the jobs of locals
It’s easy to come in and donate your time but make sure you are adding value and not taking positions from locals who are capable of doing the work. It defeats the purpose of volunteering in a developing country if you are actually reducing the opportunity for advancement.
3. Don’t volunteer at an orphanage
Okay, so that is a bit extreme. Sure, orphanages, or children’s homes, need good volunteers. But what they really need is someone who is able to provide a long-term commitment, not fly in and fly out and leave children feeling abandoned again. Unless of course, you have some kind of skill that can contribute that does not require you to be a care-giver to the children and interact with them on a daily basis. Perhaps you are an IT expert and can get all the computers up and running or an accountant, who can audit the books and train the staff. But it is true that a growth in voluntourism has created an increase in children being abandoned, sold or abducted to live in an “orphanage” where the owners can profit from the poor cute babies and bring in big bucks. It has led to huge exploitation of children. You can read more about my opinion on this here. If you are planning to volunteer at an orphanage or children’s home, check whether it is one that parades the children out to dance in front of the tourists or allows easy access to children with no security checks.
4. Offer support to locals
In many cases the people in developing countries are keen to learn and to upskill. They appreciate your support and help, they often want to learn English and chat to you. And most importantly most want to better themselves so they have the opportunity to earn more and to be more effective in their positions. Offer support and constructive feedback. Help them to learn.
5. Share specialist skills
If you have a specialist skill please let the organisation you are hoping to volunteer with know and inquire whether your skills can be used in anyway. For example, if you are a dentist, perhaps you can perform dental checks at a school or community organisation. If you are an electrician they may need new wiring, a carpenter might be able to build new cupboards or shelves. If you work in marketing you might be able to look over the marketing strategy or offer a workshop to staff on good marketing strategies. You get the drift. And if you are going to volunteer at a school – they don’t necessarily need another teacher, especially if you aren’t a teacher. But they might need other work done to keep the place running.
6. Don’t be superior and try to take over
Defer to the procedures already in place.
You will often be volunteering in a supportive role, unless you are there for a long period or you have a specialist skill. And in many cases the people you are supporting will have routines they follow and a sense of familiarity they have created in what can often be unfamiliar and challenging circumstances for them.
It’s still great to offer ideas and opportunities to improve but do it in a constructive way and make sure the people you are helping will be comfortable with the changes. Don’t take over.
Just because you are a university student does not make you a teacher – and particularly a teacher of a second language. I have seen several examples of schools or universities who send volunteers and they expect to take over the teaching of a class while they are here. Why? They are not teachers. All it does is disrupt the class, confuse the lessons that usually take place and set back the program the teachers are trying to run. Sure, some teachers are facing many challenges but the best thing you can do is go in there and help support the teacher with the lesson planned for the day. If you are a teacher, think about how you can help with lesson planning or what new initiatives you might be able to bring with you. Share them with the teachers so they can introduce them to their classes where appropriate. In many developing countries the teachers have not experienced innovative or creative teaching methods, so perhaps you can introduce some ideas on how to use art and craft, song or other methods as a learning technique.
7. Be flexible.
Understand that what works at home, won’t necessarily work in a developing country. Okay, let’s be honest – it’s probably not going to work. There are so many challenges most western countries don’t face, from regular power outages to lack of education and language barriers. The technology is often very old or basic – someone’s cast-offs that have been donated. Sometimes you just have to let things slide and go with the flow. There’s no point getting angry and upset with the way things are being done or being too rigid with procedure. Health and safety procedures are a major problem in developing countries but honestly, the sad fact is many people can’t afford the safety glasses, the high vis workwear, safety boots, gloves, harnesses and other equipment required. Try to work with what you’ve got. Encourage new ideas and safety but within the means of possibility and affordability.
8. Respect the culture and the dress code
You might come from a liberal, modern-thinking country but many developing countries are very conservative or they have certain etiquettes that are expected to be met. While many places are more lenient with volunteers and westerners it is really not difficult to take some time to find out what is considered appropriate and what isn’t.
In Cambodia and many Asian countries, the people are very conservative and they dress conservatively, particularly in rural areas. If you turn up in your short shorts with your butt cheeks hanging out (I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen this) or you bend over and your boobs just about fall out of your low-necked tank top, they will think you are a prostitute. Perhaps you don’t care but really it is just a bit of basic respect.
If you work as a teacher in your home country, you dress professionally. So if you are volunteering as a teacher don’t turn up in the skimpy outfits you’d wear to the beach or the bar at home. Be a bit professional or at the very least, respectful. I know of at least one organisation in Siem Reap that keeps some very daggy dresses and pants on hand and they make volunteers who arrive in skimpy dresses, shorts and tops wear them. The learn quickly not to do it again.
9. Patience is a virtue
You really need to have a bit of patience when you are in a developing country for most of the reasons mentioned above. Things often do not go to plan. Language barriers or a different work ethic can mean things don’t happen or the outcome is entirely different to what you envisioned. A lot of improvisation takes place and many things you are used to in a first world country are just not available. And change is often slow to be implemented. Be patient.
With the rapid increase in voluntourism it is important that people who want to help put more thought into the process to ensure they are responsible volunteers. Here’s some further reading to fuel the discussion. What do you think? Have you got any other tips on being a responsible volunteer?
Beware the voluntourists doing good