Volunteering abroad (aka voluntourism) is an incredible way to experience a new culture, make a difference in the lives of others, and have an adventure. It can be a great stepping stone into the scene of solo travel or give your resume an extra edge. Signing up with a volunteer agency takes some of the hassle out of trip planning and sets you up for an experience where you can only do good.
Not all voluntourism companies are created equally.
Over the last decade or so, the demand for volunteer tourism has increased exponentially, often doing more harm than good. Unskilled volunteers set out to build schools in Africa, only to have the locals tear everything down and rebuild them properly overnight. Children are stolen from their families to live in “orphanages” to meet the demands of volunteer tourists. Or the most common situation of all: 100% of your volunteer fee goes straight to the agency, with the local projects never seeing a dollar of it.
The ethical standards of these agencies has without a doubt fallen far from where you would imagine they should be. So many projects have the opposite effect of what the volunteers set out wanting to do.
So does this mean you shouldn’t volunteer abroad?
You absolutely still can, as long as you do your due diligence and research your projects and companies thoroughly before booking.
Here’s some advice on how to choose an ethical voluntourism company:
What to stay away from
Yes, the agency should be responsible for making sure their volunteers stay safe while abroad. Yes they should be able to provide great customer service and be willing and able to answer any questions or concerns of potential volunteers.
But it becomes a problem if their website reads more about what they can offer the volunteers rather than what the volunteers can offer the locals.
If a voluntourism agency is focusing on promising you a great vacation for a low cost, a cultural experience, and the time of your life with little to no mention of the benefit you’ll be providing to the local people, this should start raising a red flag.
Type of work
Healthcare and construction are two of the most common projects available to work on abroad. But be cautious when applying for these positions.
Are you a qualified healthcare professional? Are you confident in your ability to build walls properly, safely, and straight with limited tools available to you?
If you wouldn’t be allowed to do a job at home, you really shouldn’t be allowed to do it in a more needy country either.
A word of caution about volunteering with orphans
JK Rowling is very outspoken against volunteering with orphans and sums this point up nicely:
“Voluntourism is one of drivers of family break up in very poor countries. It incentivizes ‘orphanages’ that are run as businesses. Globally poverty is the no. 1 reason that children are institutionalized. Well-intentioned Westerners supporting orphanages perpetuate this highly damaging system and encourage the creation of more institutions as money magnets.”
While yes, there are orphanages around the world that are legitimate and take into account the best interest of the children, many are purely a business venture. Spend hours upon hours researching, reading every review and article you can before booking onto an orphanage project.
And if in doubt, forego the orphanage and pick a different project instead.
What to look for
Working with locals
One key difference between a good and bad voluntourism agency is whether you’re working with or instead of the locals.
Ensure your work is being done to complement the work of the locals, rather than taking away the job of someone who needs it.
A thorough vetting process
As I mentioned above, you shouldn’t be working on a volunteer project that you wouldn’t be qualified to work on at home.
A truly ethical volunteer agency will vet their volunteers to ensure that they will be able to do their work to a professional standard. This vetting process may include a background check, a resume submission, and maybe even an interview.
I’ll admit that I’m not perfect either. I’ve volunteered in India with a for-profit agency who fit my description of what not to look for almost exactly. But I can’t say I regret it completely. I did manage to help make children smile and began to discover the aspects of travel that I’m truly passionate about.
Because of my experience with that company, I learned a lot about how many different aspects of ethical travel there are. And I’ve resolved to travel differently and consciously in the future.