“Voluntourism” has become a very popular (as well as infamous) trend in contemporary international travel circles. On the positive side, the thought of travelers devoting their time and money to helping the world be a better place is much more inspiring than five days of umbrella drinks and debauchery at a resort. Ideally, communities will benefit from the volunteering effort, and volunteers will come away with a much richer, truer experience of the places. That, of course, is the whole idea of the exchange.
However, there has also been some fairly negative press about voluntourism. Most of the problems revolve around dishonest orphanages, where children become an attraction and are actually exploited by “caretakers” making money off of volunteer programs. Another troublesome issue is that short-term volunteers, working for a month or less, don’t really have time to make a major impact. The quick turnaround might distract well-meaning NGOs from getting things done efficiently, and the fact that the community isn’t saved from poverty after two weeks is a bit of downer for well-intentioned travelers.
Good volunteering opportunities put volunteers in direct contact with people from the local community and, specifically, local people working to change the situation from within. There are lots of opportunities to work side-by-side with villagers trying to build schools for their children. Look at De La Gente or local communities that embrace tourism — and voluntourism — as a positive industry (Visit Las Tolas’s website). What they do not do is replace local laborers or put unqualified people in positions they aren’t prepared for. Here are some ideas for your voluntourism trip.
When it comes to environmental conservation, there are loads of opportunities to help out; check out this article for specific groups and trips. From patrolling beaches and protecting turtle eggs from poachers to reforestation to bird-spotting and animal rescue, there are loads of organizations doing cool things and great chances to have some special encounters with wildlife. Unfortunately, do be aware of “rescue” operations that aren’t quite pulling their end of the deal but rather running zoos. A little research, some web searches, is usually enough to prevent any mishaps.
WWOOFing, volunteering of organic farms, is wildly popular these days, and though this isn’t necessarily a charitable act, it doesn’t mean the world doesn’t benefit from it. In other cases, there are NGOs who team with local farmers to help their work become more profitable, sustainable, and environmentally aware. It’s possible to volunteer and learn all about artisanal coffee production or making organic products. Either way you go here, the result is a cleaner environment and a chance to learn a bit about interesting agricultural techniques. Check out Hug It Forward.
Another up-and-coming pursuit is helping impoverished communities by demonstrating eco-construction. “Bottle” schools, constructed from stuffing plastic bottles with plastic trash rather than cinderblocks, are becoming a very popular thing.
Other popular trips are earthship schools, community centers and homes. Generally, these projects don’t use paid laborers, so you won’t be stealing jobs from locals. But, you will be helping locals provide themselves with something they need.
Lots of programs these days are based on empowerment, especially working with women workers, farmers and children. Victims of the free trade exploitation, local artisans, are getting foreign help with direct trade arrangements and direct global online distribution. These programs often offer tours, workshops and volunteering opportunities for people to both contribute to economic empowerment and to build firsthand relationships with innovative communities. There are also programs to help educate children and teach English.
Some communities and organizations have really wised up and simply started for-profit businesses that allow travelers to stay in remote parts of the world, experience local culture in situ and pitch in wherever it is needed. Some of the activities here can feel a bit contrived or less than 100% efficient and effective, but in the end, “volunteers” are supporting local efforts to be self-sufficient and internationally sensitive. For newbies, try The NGO List for volunteer opportunities, and for more seasoned travelers, try People & Places for responsibly arranged volunteer vacations.
Whether you are a seasoned international traveler with few trepidations and a healthy confidence in the unknown r a newbie with little knowledge of how to mime out sentence to overcome language barriers, volunteering while on vacation (and at home) is a great way to get more personal fulfillment.
Image source: Adrian Scottow/ Flickr