Voluntourism: how to do it right


e-newsletter-picRachel Northover, from African Adventures, responds to recent negative articles regarding voluntourism, explaining that there is a right way to do it…

Voluntourism is a widely discussed topic and the term often carries negative connotations. This is because there are too many companies which fail to ensure that they are behaving ethically and responsibly, and which prioritise giving the volunteers an amazing experience without considering that there should be reciprocal, long-term, sustainable benefits to the host communities.

Of course, it is important that volunteers should have an incredible experience; they have often planned, saved and fundraised for months to embark on the trip of a lifetime. But their satisfaction and gratification should not be the organisation’s main focus; rather, the emphasis should be on the impact that they can make during their trip and the benefits of their presence. Certainly, and this should go without saying, the company must not be having a detrimental effect on the host communities, in terms of taking jobs from local people and failing to deliver the standards that local tradespeople offer. If a company can say, hand on heart, that their overarching aim is to support and help the hosts, and they have the procedures and practices to demonstrate this and carry this out, then I believe that they are providing an ethical and responsible service.

Every term that a volunteer travel company uses should be applicable to both the volunteer and the host community. For example, ‘life-changing’ – volunteering should be life-changing for both the traveller and those in the community that they visit. Don’t get me wrong – one volunteer cannot expect to change lives in the space of a two-week trip, but they can help do so by being part of a bigger movement with a more long-term goal in mind, such as helping as part of a group to build a classroom that will ensure that 40 children can receive a better education.

‘Making a difference’ – the trip should make a difference to the volunteer and to the host community. Again, one might argue that a volunteer cannot make a monumental difference to a community in two weeks, but their contribution to installing running water at a school project previously without clean drinking water will have clear long-lasting benefits. Likewise, one would hope that the difference to the volunteer would be greater than just having had an enjoyable two weeks’ abroad. The hope is that the volunteer would have a new perspective on the world and would seek to really make a difference in terms of sustainable development throughout their life, having become more altruistic. How can a company ensure this change in a volunteer? Of course they can’t guarantee it, but they can ensure that a he or she is exposed to the realities of a different culture and that they have the opportunity to make a real and tangible difference, thus increasing the chances of the impact being effective and long-term.

If you choose the right organisation and you are able to support a project giving children access to an education and a daily meal, instead of them spending their days on a rubbish dump scavenging for food, where is the negative in this? Motives can be pure and you, the volunteer, really can make a difference!

So, how do you ensure that you are doing it right?

  1. Research the companies that offer volunteer travel. Is their focus solely on your experience or do they demonstrate their commitment to the host communities? They should have a responsible travel policy and should balance their desire to give volunteers a great trip with creating long-lasting change where they work.
  2. Sustainable development is key. If that company were unable to operate, would the benefits to the community disappear? Or are there safeguards in place? For example, are the initiatives that they are involved with run by local people who can keep these going?
  3. Check if there a partnership in place. It is essential that the local people welcome the company and its volunteers; otherwise, they should not be there. A partnership with those in the community demonstrates that the company’s presence is positive and impactful.
  4. Choose to volunteer with a company that does not take jobs away from local people, but rather creates employment and opportunities for the locals.
  5. Challenge yourself and the reasons why you want to travel. Are you looking for self-gratification or do you want to make a real difference? It is not wrong to want the feel-good factor but, believe me, making a real difference far outweighs a pat on the back, so make sure you do it right.

For further information, visit african-adventures.co.uk.