Voluntourism: Should You Volunteer on Your Vacation?

 | Tue 8 Jul 2014 23:54 ICT

Volunteer travel, or voluntourism, means travelling while volunteering for a charitable cause and is often carried out through an agency responsible for placing volunteers with participating organisations.  While many travellers have a well-intended desire to give back to the communities they visit, volunteering in disenfranchised communities is far more complicated than it seems. 

This is especially true when working in cultures different from your own. Before volunteering abroad, it’s important to ask yourself some serious questions about the agency you’re working with and your own motivations. Here is a brief guide to help you consider the ethics of volunteer travel and help you evaluate your options.

Do your homework.

Spend some time getting to know the community you’re going to serve before you interact with them. It can take years to understand a community and build rapport and trust – a little pre-research can go a long way in helping you comprehend the situation you are about to step into. Showing up to a volunteer position unequipped with basic knowledge can impede your ability to work effectively and lead to cultural misunderstandings and offences.

For example, the organisation I volunteer with here in Thailand works within a rural community comprised of Thais and ethnic minorities from Thailand and Burma, the latter of whom arrived here after fleeing ethnic persecution in their home communities. This forms an intricate social dynamic involving factors like ethnicity, nationality, varied backgrounds and life experiences, legal status, and communication in multiple languages. Just learning about the situation of Burmese refugees for the first time can be a shocking emotional experience. Cultural competency is paramount in community development; understanding people’s backgrounds and circumstances helps us work more meaningfully.   

Avoid faux pas.

Being culturally considerate can help you avoid being viewed in an undesirable way. Behaving or dressing inappropriately can send unintended messages about the kind of person you are or what you’re trying to accomplish. In Thai Buddhist culture, it’s unacceptable to touch a monk, touch someone on the head, or sleep with your feet pointed toward a spirit house – knowing this keeps us from offending people. On the other hand, being a bit more reserved in our mannerisms and dress, waiing as a sign of courtesy and using polite prefixes can help smooth your transition into a society that highly values politeness.  

These are just a few little gestures that of course point to the larger picture: it’s important to understand the local culture in order to engage with it sensitively. Learn what communication styles, dress, and behaviour is appropriate and conduct yourself accordingly. Remember: you’re representing the organisation you volunteer with, and while you may only be there for a few weeks, their reputation affects carefully cultivated community relationships.

Don’t “rescue.” Empower.

The ultimate goal of community organisations is to work ourselves out of a job. This happens when the community you serve attains complete self-determination. Be aware of viewing the people you work with as needy and requiring your help. The idea of “helping,” while well-intended, ultimately serves volunteers better than the communities in which they work.  People are aware of what is best for them, their families, and their communities. They’e not innately incapable of making good decisions or providing for themselves, but rather are facing systemic obstacles to their success. Many of us bring a subconscious “otherism” to our dealings with people from different backgrounds that requires a conscious effort to undo. Just as privileged people don’t lead perfect lives free from suffering, neither do disadvantaged people feel constantly gloomy and sorry for themselves. Respect others’ dignity.

Consider the long term-impacts on the community.

When working with exploited or abused populations, short-term involvement may have a negative impact. Volunteering at an orphanage for a day may be a warm and fuzzy experience for a volunteer, but can reinforce feelings of abandonment and confusion on the part of the orphans. Initiating unsustainable projects without foresight creates unfulfilled expectations and damage an organisation’s relationship with the community. Truly doing good work in a community means leaving it better off than if you were never there.    

Give what you’re good at.

Don’t do for people what they can do for themselves. Great at web design? Help out at your favorite nonprofit by working from home. Give what you’re good at, and feel good about it! While it may not be as alluring as jetting off to Thailand to care for elephants (Surprise – this is a highly skilled and dangerous job that should be performed by people with experience!), the community will appreciate the contribution of a skill they don’t have much more than “help” with something they’ve already mastered. For example, we never task volunteers with manual labour as local people are far more skilled and efficient at working with local building materials and tools. Plus, having volunteers do these jobs would detract from job opportunities for our locals with few other sources of income.  

Volunteering costs organisations precious financial and staff resources. The overwhelming majority of organisations need donations more than volunteers, so volunteers should offer something the existing staff can’t provide.

And remember, volunteering isn’t all about going abroad – your home community needs you, too!  

Tips for finding a good volunteer travel programme:

– Find out how much of your fees go to the community.

Voluntourism fees often end up in the hands of volunteer agencies and corporations.  Ask what percentage of your fees actually go back into community programming through your host organisation.

– Work first, photos later.

As a trafficking prevention initiative, we put people’s dignity first. We don’t place victims on display for the benefit of donors’ egos. Sad-looking photos of vulnerable people on an organisation’s website is a red flag that should cause you to question their motives.

– Steer clear of organisations “helping” people against their will or through economic coercion.

Safehouses and orphanages have been known to exaggerate people’s problems or to hold them without permission to leave in order to create “victims” to appeal to their donors. This practice is unethical, disempowering, and detracts from the legitimacy of people’s actual experiences.

– Make sure there is an application process.

Be wary of an organisation that lets unqualified or inexperienced volunteers interact with vulnerable populations. Children and exploited people are not a tourist attraction and it’s not a good practice to let a constant stream of strangers into what should be a safe environment – reputable organisations have a screening process to make sure their volunteers are qualified.

Kayla Gill holds a BA in community development and a passion for immigrant and refugee rights. She’s worked in migrant worker’s rights education, financial education and foreclosure prevention for low-income minority homeowners, and as a teacher in Thailand. Kayla coordinates the volunteer programme for Daughters Rising, a Chiang Mai based nonprofit dedicated to preventing sex trafficking by empowering at-risk girls through education.