There are hundreds of ‘voluntourism’ projects available, but a new report claims few of them are doing as much good as they claim. So how do you find an experience that genuinely makes a difference? Two experts in responsible tourism give their tips
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Volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism”, in which tourists combine a trip abroad with charity work, is an area of the travel industry that has long courted controversy. Research published last week in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism has found that many companies involved with voluntourism are misrepresenting their products, and that those offering the most expensive experiences are likely to be the least responsible.
“Volunteer tourism organisations should be taking their responsibility more seriously,” says Victoria Smith, lead author of the study, which sampled some of the biggest organisations that sell to UK travellers and assessed their marketing techniques. “Just because a product is volunteer tourism does not mean it has positive impacts.”
While Smith found many examples of good practice, the companies that the research found to be the most negative threatened litigation if Smith named them; an indication, she says, of the “murky world” in which many of them operate.
“The status of an organisation is no guarantee of responsible practice,” says Smith. “It cannot be assumed that a charity automatically demonstrates better practice, or that a for-profit business automatically is worse. The credibility that being an ethical business can bring in this market is strong, so organisations like to portray themselves that way, but it cannot be assumed they actually are.”
There are hundreds of volunteer opportunities offered by both travel companies and charities. How does a potential volunteer know which organisations are getting it right and which ones are, at best, misguided, and, at worst, positively unhelpful to the very communities they claim to help? We asked Smith and Dr Xavier Font, reader at Leeds Metropolitan University and an expert in responsible tourism who supported her study, to share their top five tips for potential voluntourists.
Ask your volunteer organisation to break down where the money you pay will go
Higher prices aren’t a sign of better quality but pricing transparency is. Good organisations should already be publishing their accounts but it is still rare … but when you ask they should be happy to tell you. People and Places – which has won a Responsible Tourism award and does a range of community development projects, as well as business education and training – is one of the few groups that does publish its figures. It is a social enterprise and at least 80% of its profits always go back to the community. It’s not wrong for the organisations to have a margin, but they shouldn’t be exploiting the volunteers and communities for profit.
Ask for evidence of how previous volunteers have made a difference
Just because an organisation appears to sell itself on ethical credentials does not mean it is. These groups can be very good at describing their vision but not so good when it comes to the details. The organisations should be doing a needs assessment for the locations they are working in and establishing exactly what help is required. Projects should be planned in advance, so ask for details on specific goals, the context of the project and how they expect it to make a difference.
GVI is an organisation that does well to balance offering a large range of destinations while also giving back a lot of clear information about its work. It does onservation projects really well but also works with social enterprise – it’s a good all-rounder.
There isn’t an accreditation body and the industry is completely unregulated but the International Ecotourism Society has published guidelines for voluntourism operators. While they are not aimed at the consumer, it is recommended that you read them to get a good impression of what best practice is and what you should be checking for. Again, transparency is important. Organisations should have open links to their social media sites, where you can get an idea of past volunteers’ experiences; try to contact people who have already been involved.
If you are not qualified to do it in the UK, don’t do it abroad
This especially includes Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks and child-protection policies for childcare or youth-related projects. More responsible organisations, which offer placements that really enable volunteers to make a difference, will take time to find the right match. The organisation should want to find out about your skills and specialisms and spend time finding an appropriate role for you. It should feel more like applying for a job than booking a holiday.
Be wary of the length of the project
Short-term voluntourism isn’t necessarily bad but it depends on the project. For conservation projects the impact on the animals or biodiversity does not depend on developing personal relationships: often they might just need an extra hand on deck to do data inputting, so it won’t make so much difference if you are only there for a short period. Blue Ventures is a good organisation that specialises in marine conservation projects. When it comes to any projects relating to childcare, teaching or community work you should expect to be there at least for a few months and, as mentioned, definitely be matched according to your skills, otherwise you risk having a negative impact on the people you hope to help. To make a difference you need to spend time at the destination and it is a big investment for your host to train you and get some benefit from your stay.
The community needs come ahead of yours
You came to help, so think about the beneficiaries of your stay first: are they really benefiting? Carefully note how organisations talk about the projects and communities that they are involved with. Anything that belittles or degrades local people should flag up warning signals; poverty marketing is not respectful. Pod Volunteer is another social enterprise that seems to want to be genuinely ethically run and want to do the best thing, putting back into the communities it works with. Any voluntourism involving orphanages should be completely avoided. An endless stream of visitors to these places can be psychologically disruptive to children who are likely to have already been abandoned. Disturbingly, the desire from westerners to help in orphanages has led some “entrepreneurs” to set them up simply to cater for tourist demand. This has been a particular problem in Cambodia, where NGOs and child protection services have been pleading with tourists to stop engaging with “orphanage tourism“.