A look at who really benefits from the voluntourism industry

Martin is a travel writer based in Malaysia. This article is an extract from a talk he'll be giving on the voluntourism industry at Wild Asia's 'Voluntourism: Are the extra hands helping?' Responsible Tourism Event at ITB Asia in Singapore in October.

He's also the author of 'More than footprints?: How backpacking lost its way' which looks at how the backpacking industry has grown since the first hippies hit the overland trail. For more information on his view of the voluntourism industry from his book visit morethanfootprints.com

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When I was 17 I called Oxfam to find out how I could volunteer on one of their projects during the summer holidays.

“What can you do?” asked the woman on the phone. “Are you a doctor? An engineer?”

“Er, no. I’m doing my A levels.”

“Well we need professionals. People with skills.”

“Well, is there something else I can do, like… dig a well or build something?”

“We can give a local person a wage to do that. Call us back when you’ve finished your degree.” With which she put the phone down. And rightly so. What use was I to them? I had no skills, no training. I couldn’t teach anyone to ‘fish’.

Since then a voluntourism industry has emerged which is far less picky about our qualifications. You can teach English in Cambodia, build schools in Guatemala, and do ‘community work’ just about everywhere – for a fee.

As Natasha Stein points out in her excellent article on how to find a responsible volunteering project, this new industry has been receiving a lot of negative press recently (though the very fact that we need an article on ethical volunteering placements means that the opprobrium is probably justified – see also Daniela Papi's excellent TEDx Talk). Unfortunately, lacking any form of regulation, it's down to the prospective volunteer to ask questions to find out which voluntourism companies are really benefiting the communities they are supposed to be serving. But in order to ask the right questions, we need to understand how the industry operates.

is Voluntourism helping the right people

Where does the money go?

Because of the disingenuous wording on their websites, the assumption that these voluntourism companies are charities, when they are anything but, is wide-spread. The origins of the term 'voluntourism' can probably be traced to 2007 when one of the larger volunteering organisations was bought for $30 million by one of the UK's largest provider of all-inclusive holidays. Being a charity may not guarantee proper management, but it should at least offer a degree of financial transparency. When owned by holiday companies they can be quite vague.

The Al-Jazeera documentary Cambodia's Orphan Business found that out of the $3000 volunteers had paid to one volunteering company for a three-month placement at the Cambodian Children's Umbrella Centre (CCUC), an orphanage in Phnom Pehn, the orphanage received nine dollars per volunteer, per week.

Another, quite natural assumption is that by volunteering we are automatically helping. After all, why would these companies organise the placement if it didn't help?

Are children a tourist attraction?

Some of the most popular placements involve working in orphanages. Well-meaning volunteers shower the orphans with love because the volunteers, understandably, want to develop a real connection with the children. But then a month or two later, after an emotional leaving ceremony, the volunteers get back on the bus and go home. The UNICEF report With the Best Intentions (which should be required reading for anyone thinking of volunteering in an orphanage) states that:

A high turnover of caregivers has also been shown to negatively impact children in care who must repeatedly try to form emotional connections with different adults. Many volunteers see it as their role to provide love, thus building strong emotional bonds with the children. However, when the volunteers leave, these bonds are broken and the children are once again left alone.

Several of the children at CCUC were suffering from attachment disorders.

The children were also being kept in deliberately sub-standard housing; some of the beds lacked mattresses, one of the bedrooms lacked a roof. This allowed the director, Sineth Sok, to tug the heart strings of visitors and solicit donations. Sineth did nothing about the children's living conditions of course, because that would have meant that the tourists would stop giving money. This begs the fundamental question of whether voluntourism companies are actually solving any problems. Their websites may be full of testimonials about how the experience of volunteering in an orphanage was 'life-changing'; but it was the volunteer's life; not the orphans'.

The Norwegian NGO NEDO uses the profits from its businesses in Siem Reap to provide water filters for rural communities in Siem Reap Province. The principle behind NEDO is that the projects they set up should eventually become self-sufficient. NEDO trains their local staff, and bit by bit hands over the day-to-day operations to them until they've created a Cambodian business, owned and operated by the staff, and NEDO can leave them to it. Does orphanage tourism have a goal, an end point, or are the volunteers just part of a (very lucrative) conveyor belt of free labour? James Sutherland from Friends International, which runs the ChildSafe campaign, says that by supplying funds and free labour to orphanages like CCUC, tourists are merely “perpetuating the problem”.

Who does voluntourism actually help?

Your CV, or theirs?

A couple of years ago one voluntourism company was offering a 27-day tour of Vietnam finishing with two-weeks ‘helping build wells’ for $1930. No well-digging experience was required and there would be a qualified engineer there who could tell you where to dump the dirt. But as the woman at Oxfam pointed out, if I have no specialist skills to offer, all I’d be bringing to that project was my ability to wield a shovel – something many locals could do themselves, and they could get paid for doing it. With poverty probably being a driving factor behind the need for the project in the first place, it seems a little unfair that a westerner who doesn’t need the work, in fact, a westerner who can afford to pay $1930 to do the work, is taking jobs away from local people.

So should we volunteer? Yes!

These issues might leave you wondering whether you should volunteer at all, but in a time when governments are cutting aid budgets, paying volunteers enable organisations to do extremely important work in places which genuinely benefit from them. There's nothing wrong with the desire to 'give something back' on your gap year (what could be better?). A volunteer who can provide a needed - and requested - skill to local people in a properly organised and resourced environment is absolutely a force for good. The question is not whether you should volunteer, the question is; who is matching the desire with the need?

ConCERT Cambodia is a local volunteer placement service in Siem Reap. Tourists visiting the nearby temples of Angkor Wat see the poverty in the province and naturally many of them want to do something to help. ConCERT matches the skills tourists have with a network of local projects which can benefit from them. Even if tourists don't have specific skills they can bring to the project, placements of long enough duration allow for adequate training to ensure their role within the project is a positive one. There are local, responsible volunteering opportunities like this all over the world (and placement organisations like People and Places, which has a genuinely ethical approach to volunteering). The difference is that they don't ask for thousands of dollars, just skills (or enough time to gain them), and a far larger proportion of their (far smaller) fee directly benefits those communities they serve.

There is a growing movement to clean up the voluntourism industry. Following the Al-Jazeera documentary, legal action was started against the CCUC, Sineth was charged with criminal negligence, and voluntourism companies are increasingly removing orphanage placements from their listings. 

Volunteering opportunities do exist which mean that the new entry in your CV won't have come at the expense of those you were supposed to be helping. These small, local, ethical projects need to unite and pool their resources so they're easier to find, and governments need to regulate the voluntary sector. But most importantly, the holiday companies need to decide if they are really in the business of solving the world's problems, or if the world's problems have simply become part of their business.

If you do decide to go with one of the large volunteering organisations, ConCERT's website features a checklist of questions which can be asked of the voluntourism company (former volunteers are an excellent source of information - though that might be why the less reputable organisations resist putting you in touch with them). But if their answers still leave you wondering if you can bring any useful skills to a project, or are taking a job away from a local person (or worse, are joining a project which allows for the exploitation of children): Keep Looking. The smaller, local projects may not have the resources to promote themselves like the corporate-owned voluntourism companies, but that's what the internet is for. There are responsible, ethical organisations out there who can use you. You just have to travel a little further down Google's search results to find them.

For more information check out gapyear.com's guide to choosing a volunteer placement

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