Voluntourism – volunteering while on holiday – is becoming an option for more and more travellers. On the surface, it’s an excuse to get away and, at the same time, help those in need. But while the volunteer’s heart might be in the right place, the experience isn’t always what they expect. Critics of voluntourism point to exploitation of the needy, creating dependency and the sustainability and effectiveness of some programs.
With so many private companies and organizations offering volunteer travel options, research and having realistic expectations are the keys to having a worthwhile experience.
Hit The Ground Running
Claudine Lavoie found her inspiration in the pages of Birute Galdikas’ memoir Reflections of Eden which detailed the author’s work with orangutans.
“There are so few orangutans left in the world and there is not much hope for their survival with poaching, loss of habitat and a corrupt government,” Lavoie explains. “I needed to go and help, and rather than go on another self-indulgent backpacking holiday to Bali, I thought I would incorporate some meaningful work into it and work in Borneo as a volunteer.”
She contacted a company that assisted her in making travel and work arrangements. Travel delays meant she arrived late and missed much of the orientation process. She had to hit the ground running.
The work was focused on rehabilitating orangutans of all ages and feeding orphaned babies. Volunteers also spent time in observation towers tracking adult males.
Despite the hands on-work, Lavoie found the experience was more of an eye-opener than a difference-maker.
“It wasn’t quite long enough to feel like I did much to make a difference,” she says. “If I were to do it again I would commit to a longer term. I left feeling angry with the corruption and helpless – like trying to save a species under such conditions with greed and lack of foresight is a lost cause.”
But she felt inspired by the people who commit their lives to helping the orangutans. She says she was well treated and would recommend the experience to others, if only as an educational experience.
Angela Wade also felt the need to do something different. A newspaper ad by an organization offering volunteer holidays piqued her interest.
“They had a few destinations and volunteer options,” she says. “I’d always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands – so thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and do something I thought would be ‘worthwhile’ while there as well.”
“On paper, it seemed pretty good,” she says. Wade and her group had a general idea of what they’d be doing: clearing land of raspberry bushes so tortoises could roam freely.
“It sounded like hard but rewarding work.”
But the reality was different. Wade says that things were disorganized. Tools were limited and many were broken. If they’d known that before departure, she says, they could have brought along tools to donate.
“It also felt like we saw nothing through to completion. We left things started, wondering if there would be any follow-through after we’d left, and that left us all very disappointed and feeling less than enthusiastic, which was a shame seeing as we had expected the exact opposite – we were doing this so we could feel like we’d done something worthwhile, not pointless.”
If she were to do a volunteer holiday in the future, Wade says she’d do more research to make sure there was an obvious end result. “Something where you can stand back and look and think, ‘That definitely benefits the animals or people in need.’”
In my own case, while not strictly volunteer work (I was paid a small salary), I worked in Ghana, West Africa for eight months as a journalism trainer with the Canadian media rights organization Journalists for Human Rights (JHR).
Prior to going to West Africa, I had travelled widely through Central America. I saw how completely different life is for most people on this planet. When I returned home to the steel and glass towers of Vancouver, I found I had a burning desire to do more than just visit the developing world. I wanted to do something positive.
One day, a former colleague who had worked with JHR, told me about her experience as a journalism trainer. The lightbulb went off. That’s what I could do: take my skills in the media and work with local Ghanaian journalists. Not to do their work, but to help them craft their stories and be a sounding board. The central idea of JHR is to encourage local reporters to cover more human rights issues, thus the local population learns more about their constitutional rights.
It was an amazing, eye-opening experience. Some of it was easy. Some of it was frustrating. But I found it to be the most rewarding experience of my life.
Lavoie thinks people should volunteer in general during their travels, whatever their passion.
“For one week or a year or more. It’s an amazing world and help is needed everywhere. I come from a country of plenty and I think it’s important to have my eyes opened and get out of my comfort zone.”
If you’re thinking about a volunteer holiday, seek out people who have gone before you and discuss their experience. Learn more about the organization you’ll be working with and the kind of work you’ll be doing. A little research goes a long way to ensuring a positive experience.
Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA): www.acdi-cida.gc.ca
Journalists for Human Rights (JHR): www.jhr.ca