Voluntourism, it’s become a buzz word in the travel industry but what is it, how does it work and how do you choose a worthwhile project?
Voluntourism is a holiday where you go out as a volunteer, usually but not always to a developing country and volunteer. Sometimes it’s just volunteering your time, sometimes you have specific skills that you take to a project and sometimes the project will train you in some basic skills to undertake the tasks that are needed. Either way, is it a good use of your time and money or is it just a ‘feel-good’ holiday where you leave feeling like you’ve done some good, but where the efforts you have put in will crumble just as quickly once you leave. How do you ensure that isn’t the case? The first thing to do, after you’ve identified which project you’d like to take part in is to do some research. Any project worth joining will be able to give you the answers to the following questions relatively easily.
- What value is the project to the local community? What does it give them? What long term goals does the project have and how sustainable will they be? A project needs to have identifiable goals and needs to be clear on how they will be sustainable in the longer term. They need to know how long they will expect to be in the local area – is this a long term project or a short term fix and why? It’s also important that the local community is involved, actively, assisting with planning and if possible implementation and giving their own unique local knowledge. This ensures the project has their backing and won’t necessarily fall apart when the organisation you volunteer with hands things back to them further down the line.
- Where is the money going? It’s more than likely that there will be a considerable fee for joining most projects. The voluntourism holiday isn’t usually a cheap alternative. It’s important therefore to see where your money is going – is it into plush western offices or does it go to the project itself? Most organisations can give you a breakdown of the finance and how much goes overseas to staff, running the project, bed and board for you whilst you are there and the local office in your country.
- If you are involved in any sort of conservation project which involves research, where is that research going? What value does it have? Personally I would look to it going into local, national and regional government and NGO’s for the area you volunteer in. That way it is of direct use to the area you have chosen to go to.
One project I joined does just that – it’s working with all the local and national NGO’s, government bodies and organisations in Belize so that their research is being actively used to further protection measures for the coral reef and fisheries.
- On any sort of project where is the sustainability and development of local skills? In any project, not only should there be a solid plan for future growth but also a plan to develop local expertise. We go as wealthy westerners with time on our hands and learn new skills whilst we are there but a project should also seek to train up locals, educate children and pass on skills which the community can use in the future. Local involvement is the key to success of any project long term.
- It should also be questioned why the local community can’t offer what the project is offering. I’ve worked on a number of projects which answer this.
One project was providing a basic education to children who couldn’t afford to go to school, the finance wasn’t there. Those that could afford it had homework re-enforcement as their parents weren’t necessarily able to help them with this as they hadn’t necessarily gone to school either. The project worked towards getting the children into local schools through scholarships (this is where some of the money went).
Another project I worked on was a conservation project, conducting valuable research into the local coral reef system. In this project the volunteers were providing the finance and the manpower (two things which came together) which then freed up the scientists from grant applications and insecure funding to train up volunteers both to work on survey work and to help educate the local youth in schools on the importance of conservation. Volunteers then go back to their own countries as ambassadors for conservation.
Once the tough questions have been asked, projects like these, run properly, offer endless benefits to volunteers in terms of new skills, new friends, interests, job prospects and work experiences and full immersion in local culture.