Voluntourism is when someone, usually from a developed country or privileged background, spends time on a project, typically for a charity or non-governmental organisation, in a developed country. It is often part of a vacation or gap year and mostly lasts for only a few weeks. In recent years this practice has become a multi-billion dollar industry, with travel companies marketing package holiday style experiences to young travellers. However careful thought should be given to engaging in voluntourism and the organisations involved in offering these trips. Here are a few aspects to consider:

Is the project genuine?
Some projects appear to offer an amazing experience but behind the attractive sales pitch and persuasive photos there may be a different story. For example, many children in orphanages have parents, it is just that their family cannot afford to feed and clothe them. It’s not uncommon for projects to be purely for profit, or even conducting immoral or illegal activities.

It’s incredibly important to research the organisations involved thoroughly. Do they publish their accounts? Have they been involved in any scandals? Are they certified by authorities? Where do your fees go and how is that verified? Who is responsible for the project and what are their qualifications? There are many questions you should be asking to ascertain their validity. Don’t believe the hype, it could all be propaganda!

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Is the project ethical?
There must be consideration given to whether the act of voluntourism increases the local communities dependency on the project or even exacerbates the problem rather than enabling self-sufficiency or fostering development. For example, any experience with wildlife may be increasing the likelihood that a market of captive animals is created to cater to volunteers. You may be creating psychological issues for children in orphanages who become attached to volunteers who only stay for a few weeks at a time, and are therefore being cyclically abandoned. When it comes to vulnerable sectors of society, especially young people and the disabled, as well as animals, it is important to question the benefits volunteers can offer.

Ask questions to the organisation before you sign up about their codes of conduct, and their role in the local society. Find out how the project is reducing reliance on volunteers or upskilling the community where they are located.

Is the project sustainable?
The experience you are researching might sound really beneficial to the local community but what will happen when you leave? For example, does the newly built school require continuous volunteer teachers and donations to function? Who will pay for the maintenance, electricity bills and textbooks? It is really important to find out if the project has a long term plan, with a feasible funding structure.

There have been many instances where a new scheme, such as delivering new forest management or farming techniques that simply collapse when the project finishes after a couple of years. Consider how the community will cope without the additional support and whether this is something that has a viable future.

Is the project successful?
The point of every charity should be to put themselves out of operation – that there is no need to help the homeless because everyone has shelter, that each orphan finds a family and every child receives schooling. Does the experience provide any details about how they are achieving such goals? How is this verified? Do you want to be involved in a project that isn’t very useful for the people it is trying to serve? You may be surprised to find that there are projects that simply act as cash cows, attracting donations and fees and delivering very little. Be aware and make sure you carry out adequate research.

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What skills do you have?
If you are trained in the field of medicine or another valuable profession, then it may be very beneficial to the project you are considering. However, are there any plans in place to train local people in these skills? It is far more valuable to society to train some trainers and leave behind a more self-supporting community rather than to support a stream of foreigners, a high risk situation of dependency that could end at any time for many reasons.

If you are unskilled, what exactly are you bringing to the project? For example, you may think you are being incredibly helpful by building a school but are you a bricklayer? If not, is the structure going to be built well? In fact, will it be safe? Are there skilled bricklayers in the local community that are being denied work because of your presence? There have been projects where volunteers have simply paid to paint the same school walls – resulting in a new coat every two weeks! Or walls that have been rebuilt by local bricklayers overnight as the volunteer work was so substandard.

When you are considering a project you must also take into account what value you are offering. Would you enter a school near where you live and start teaching without any training or certification? I’m sure you would not be allowed, so why is that acceptable in voluntourism? It is advisable to get some form of qualification prior to volunteering.

Would the community benefit more from your cash rather than your time?
Once you add up the total amount you are spending, including flights, accommodation, transport, food, activities, insurance, medication, clothing and the project fees, it can be quite a considerable sum.

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Are you prepared for the people you may encounter as part of the experience?
Be warned, not everyone involved in the project might not be there for the best reasons. There are plenty of perfectly wonderful voluntourists but there are also some that have serious personal problems including mental health issues, are criminals or sex tourists, alcoholics, or are very, very unprepared for life in a developed country. This also goes for the people who are running the organisation, as well as the beneficiaries and the local community members.

There are lots of genuine, worthy and worthwhile opportunities, but there are so many that are not. It’s incredibly heartbreaking to find out that you have wasted a lot of time and money on a trip that had no benefits to the local community, they may even find it offensive or highly amusing, to the point where you feel really stupid.

In conclusion, you will have to ask yourself is voluntourism the right thing to do? Is the purpose of the trip more about the project or you? Seriously ask yourself why you want to volunteer. You may think that you have the right intentions but be aware that you may be criticised for your choice. If you want to do some good, can you do that more effectively at home?

Is it better to visit the country and donate directly to a verified, sustainable and successful organisation? Most likely.

Developing countries do not need a stream of volunteers to become more developed; in fact you are perpetuating that dependency on foreign assistance! People really want an opportunity to build a life for themselves, with respect and dignity.

Like this post? Subscribe to the Soulful Travel newsletter for Annie’s packing checklist plus travel related advice, news, competitions and more. Sign up here.

If you need travel advice, request a free 30 minute coaching session. In the chat Annie will help you choose a destination, create your itinerary and review safety precautions. Or she can discuss how you can incorporate more travel into your life by saving, making money, travelling for free or being paid to travel.