Volunteering is one of the most popular and time honoured traditions of taking a gap year with many backpackers choosing to spend some of their time giving back and trying to make a difference in the world. This is a very noble ideal and when done right it is a good way to not only do some good but to make the most of your time abroad. Many backpackers who volunteer say it was the most rewarding thing they have ever done.
But volunteering isn’t always good. Like with anything else it has its dark side, and for every volunteer experience that helps a cause, there is a voluntourism one that exploits both the traveller and the local community it says it is helping. When this happens, volunteering can often do more harm than good.
The Good, The Bad And The Do Gooder.
Volunteering isn’t a new thing, people have been donating their time for good causes for as long as there has been a need for them, and organisations like the Peace Corps or Medicins Sans frontiers have been around for decades, but over the past decade or so the volunteering opportunities around the world have expanded exponentially and volunteering has now become a firmly entrenched part of the gap year industry. This has meant that dozens of greenwashed for profit ‘experiences’ masquerading as voluntourism have sprung up alongside the genuine volunteering sector, and it is not always easy to distinguish between them.
Anyone can volunteer, from those with professional skills and qualifications such as nursing, medicine, law or education, those with managerial or admin experience or even those without any skills or qualifications but can offer basic manual labour and are willing to start at the bottom and learn.
When done right, volunteer programmes and projects around the world can have a huge positive impact on a wide range of humanitarian aid, relief efforts and community, education, conservation and health issues to name just a few, and they can ensure that volunteers can have a vital, positive impact on the communities that they are working with by empowering them to become self sustaining and meeting the goals that the community or the cause actually needs.
And the positive effects aren’t all just one way either. By collaborating with and working alongside local communities and projects, volunteers can gain as much as they give, from a basic wider understanding of cultures and communities to actual skills and qualifications that can help boost their CVs and job projects.
Volunteering vs Voluntourism.
Unfortunately as the demand for volunteering opportunities around the world has risen, so too has the opportunistic voluntourism sector in the gap year industry. Go to any gap year industry provider and you will find a wealth of programmes and companies offering ‘volunteer’ opportunities ranging from a week digging a well or helping to build a school in a remote village to working with animals and wildlife in exotic locations, often being sold for large sums of money. Unfortunately profit making companies have now replaced NGOs and genuine causes as the go to source for those first time backpackers and travellers who want to volunteer abroad but have little idea how to do so.
Of course there are some genuinely good agencies out there who do a lot of good to the projects they serve and funnel money and resources into genuine causes and communities. Unfortunately there are many who don’t, and these companies – and the often well intentioned tourists who sign up for them – do very little to alleviate the problems they are claiming to help.
From taking money and resources away from the projects for their own profits to actually creating ‘poverty porn’ conveyor belts as children and animals are cynically exploited to utilise naive tourists as cash cows. In certain cases there have been small profitable industries built up around voluntourism where volunteer opportunities are set up for the tourists benefit not the local communities, and round and round the money making conveyor belt goes. The orphanages in Cambodia are probably one of the better known examples of this, where orphanages are kept intentionally squalid and children – who often aren’t even orphans – are sent to beg or look poor and lonely to the guilt ridden tourists that come to ‘volunteer’.
This isn’t trying to put you off in any way, but it is stating the importance – now more than ever – of doing your research and knowing exactly who you are volunteering with. Know exactly what you are volunteering to do, know exactly what your skills are and what level of responsibility they will give you, know exactly who the organisation you are working for are and exactly what they are doing as well as where every single penny of your money is going to.
Volunteering on your gap year can be an amazing thing, both for you and the community or cause you are trying to help, but you have to be very careful to ensure you are volunteering in the right way.
For further information see the websites of the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and the International Citizen Service (ICS) websites, Medicins Sans Frontieres or the Red Cross International to give you an idea of what to look for. There are a wide variety of decent organisations and companies who you can volunteer with and you should always research both the type of volunteer project you want to do and the company you want to volunteer with before you sign up with them. This list is not exhaustive, it is just here to give you some important contacts of a few of the well established, recognised and well known volunteer organisations to get you started.