Voluntourism CAN make a difference and can be life changing – when done right

Dan Mew

Clearly, voluntourism is becoming a widely discussed topic and the term often carries negative connotations. Why? Because there are too many companies which fail to ensure that they are behaving ethically and responsibly. Companies which have been set up to give volunteers an amazing experience without considering that there should be reciprocal, long-term, sustainable benefits to the host communities.

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Volunteers providing teaching assistance in a Kenyan classroom

Without doubt it is essential 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 main focus of the company that they travel with; rather, the focus should be on the impact that they can make during their trip and the benefits of their presence to the community that they are visiting. Certainly, and this may go without saying, the company must not be having a detrimental effect on the host community, in terms of taking jobs from local people and failing to deliver the standards that local tradesmen offer. If a company can say, hand-on-heart, that their overarching aim is to support and benefit the host community, 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.

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Volunteers engage in renovation works at partner project in Ghana

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 do so by being part of a bigger movement with a bigger goal in mind. For example, helping as part of a group to build a classroom that will ensure that 40 children can receive a better education.

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Sports volunteering in Ghana

‘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 a great 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? They can’t but they can ensure that a volunteer 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 real and long term.

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One of the overcrowded classrooms at a partner project school in Zanzibar where we are helping to make a positive difference

If you choose the right company 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, the volunteer, 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 company and its volunteers are welcome in the local community, or they should not be there. A partnership with those in the local community demonstrates that the company’s presence is welcomed 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 those in the local community.
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 do it right!