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Voluntourism: Every little helps?

From monitoring reef sharks on a conservation project in the tropics to helping build an African school, voluntourism is an increasingly attractive way to travel. But it’s also a moral minefield. With many volunteer tourism companies motivated chiefly by profit, it can be hard to distinguish ethical projects from those that do more harm that good

Voluntourism: Every little helps?
Working in the biogarden, Manu National Park, Peru. Image: Travel People and Places.

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Charity expeditions, volunteer tourism, learning holidays: the rise of do-gooding travel appears to know no bounds. An ever-increasing number of us want more from our trips than a tan and an exotic Twitter feed. We either want to improve ourselves by learning a new skill or seeking out immersive cultural experiences, or we want to improve the world — perhaps by raising money on a charity challenge or by volunteering for a worthy project. All commendable ideas, but anyone who’s planned a big trip knows that intent and outcome are often two different things — and this is perhaps nowhere truer than with volunteer tourism (voluntourism).

A steady stream of news headlines have given this relatively new sector of the tourism industry a kicking, painting it as little more than a money-making enterprise that either panders to wealthy First World volunteers or exploits both them and the Third World communities in which they volunteer. A recent Daily Mail article, for example, reported on everything from bogus animal sanctuaries to fake orphanages, while a CNN feature ran under an increasingly common headline: Does volunteer tourism do more harm than good?

The answer isn’t simple. But it’s true to say that ethical volunteering and the profit-driven travel industry aren’t natural allies. And the first question many potential volunteers ask is: why should I pay to volunteer my time? Giving up precious holiday days to volunteer on a project abroad may seem enough but, in fact, it’s commonplace to be expected to pay to secure a placement — at the very least to cover travel expenses, meals and accommodation. In many cases, some of this fee will go to a third-party organisation that helps place volunteers in projects, and this is where things can get murky.

Traditionally, volunteering was the preserve of nonprofit charities or non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which placed trained volunteers — teachers, nurses, engineers and the like — in long-term projects suited to their skills. Voluntourism, conversely, has grown up around travellers who have little time to spare and/or no specific skills, and is often managed by companies that are essentially focused on their bottom line. A recent report by Leeds Metropolitan University showed a direct correlation between cost and quality, noting that volunteer tourism organisations offering the most expensive products are likely to be the least responsible.

“Unlike charities, commercial operators don’t need to prove to the Charity Commission that they’re providing a benefit,” says Peter Bishop, project manager at campaigning charity Tourism Concern. “Major gap year companies have been so successful that they’ve been bought by holiday companies. The package-holiday group First Choice bought i-to-i for almost £20m. Tui later merged with First Choice and also bought Real Gap, which includes the Gap Year for Grown Ups brand.”

Tourism Concern estimates there are now around 100 agencies in Britain placing volunteers abroad on work projects — everyone from holidaymakers to gap year travellers, career breakers to travelling retirees. “It’s incredibly important that volunteering meets a real need, but sadly this drive to fulfil the volunteer’s desires first often means placements are oriented to ‘sexy’ projects in tourist-friendly locations,” says Peter. “There have even been cases of volunteers being sent to paint the same school building that other volunteers painted only a few weeks before.”

A lack of regulation is at the heart of the problem but there have been some significant efforts to create industry standards. Among them: the Gap Year and International Volunteering Standard (GIVS), set up by Tourism Concern in partnership with volunteering organisations; and the International Ecotourism Society’s International Voluntourism Guidelines for Commercial Tour Operators. These give operators clear guidelines, but how does a potential volunteer find a meaningful placement?

“Please, please ask questions,” says Sallie Grayson, programme director at volunteer tour operator People and Places, a winner at the 2013 World Responsible Tourism Awards. “There are still way too many unethical or poorly managed volunteer organisations operating. We believe volunteering can be a win-win for volunteers and the community they seek to serve — but people must be put in the right places. So there needs to be a lot of information shared by all parties. If you can reserve a place on a volunteer programme simply by providing contact details and your credit card number, and if you don’t know where exactly you’ll be working and what you’ll be doing, ask yourself: should I be volunteering with that organisation?”

The People and Places website has a section entitled ‘you need the answers’, highlighting some of the key questions a potential traveller should ask of their volunteer organisation. Among these are: ‘I’m only going to be there for a few weeks — how can my input be of any real use?’; ‘When, how and where is my money spent?’; and ‘Will you advise me about local culture and how I should behave?’ In a similar way, the FCO’s Know Before You Go campaign — backed by over 600 travel industry partners, including Tourism Concern — aims to get potential volunteers to question whether their placement is appropriate to their needs and skills, and if it’s likely to make a worthwhile contribution to those it seeks to help.

Making a difference

Making a worthy contribution is a key motivation for most travellers who volunteer. Sadly, for some types of placement, particularly orphanage projects, this is often impossible. “There are very few times that volunteers should be working directly with vulnerable children, unless they have appropriate qualifications, skills and experience,” says Justin Francis, co-founder of ethical travel firm Responsible Travel. “Research suggests children are better off in a family or community setting rather than residential care. There’s been a surge in residential care homes because parents are tempted to give up their children. For example, Siem Reap in Cambodia is a city of 100,000 and it has 35 orphanages. Many are unlicensed or funded by overseas donors who turn to orphanage volunteering and train children to perform to attract donors.”

Responsible Tourism has dubbed these placements ‘hug an orphan holidays’ and warns about the emotional risk to the child of continual short-term attachments being formed and abandoned as untrained volunteers come and go.

In partnership with a group of industry leaders and NGO experts, the company has started a campaign to establish guidelines encouraging more responsible volunteering with vulnerable children, including 10 questions for travellers to ask volunteer organisations. Tourism Concern has also initiated a petition calling on governments and tour operators to end what it called ‘the scourge of orphanage tourism’.

Get it right, however, and volunteering with children can be rewarding and beneficial. Among People and Places’ ethical volunteer trips is a childcare support placement in Siem Reap on a project to support poor families. Another example, in the same area, is run by ABOUTAsia Schools. This nonprofit outfit, based in Siem Reap, provides supplies, teachers and training across a network of 108 Cambodian schools, and is sustainably funded by partner tour operator ABOUTAsia. Some of the teaching is done by trained volunteers who sign up to a minimum of one month, plus four days’ pre-trip training.

“Before the programme, I thought it would be easy to go and teach English,” says Leti, a volunteer from Switzerland. “The programme made me aware of the millions of mistakes it would be easy to make in front of a class, and the harm that an untrained teacher could do.”

But the results can be very life affirming. “I’ve been a high school teacher for the past five years,” says Maxine, a volunteer from Australia. “But teaching here has helped me to find new motivation and inspiration — it’s reminded me why I became a teacher in the first place. The children are so receptive and attentive, and they really want to learn. It’s so rewarding to see their written and spoken English skills improve as they grasp each new concept.”

The success of a volunteering holiday is, of course, largely, down to the volunteer. It can be an emotionally demanding, physically challenging experience, often made up of repetitive duties that don’t always yield obvious results. Most volunteer holidays are based around community projects but an increasing number also focus on conservation and ecology — both of which don’t usually involve quick fixes.

Ten years ago, I took part in a two-week trip to Siberia, to work on a new conservation project with Biosphere Expeditions, a nonprofit conservation and wildlife volunteer holiday company. The focus was monitoring the habitat of the endangered snow leopard — a uniquely thrilling opportunity, on paper. In practice, this involved a lot of tough, high-altitude trekking, the highlight of which was finding a possible paw print and some leopard scat. The setting, in the Altai Mountains, above the Siberian steppe and Mongolian border, was stunning and the realities of the expedition were nothing Biosphere hadn’t been clear about. And yet there were mutterings from a few volunteers about ‘spending two weeks slogging around, looking for cat shit’.

Not being able to see instant or quantifiable results — or indeed a leopard — frustrated some. But a good voluntourism project is a long-term local investment that has a slow, creeping impact. A decade later, you can see how this particular project has produced results. Data collected by Biosphere volunteers was used to support a campaign to establish a protected area in the Altai Republic. It now provides a safe habitat for various endangered species, including the snow leopard. Good things, it seems, come to those volunteers who wait.

Trust the trip: Five ethical volunteer holidays

1. Community development in Manú National Park, Peru: People and Places
Work with communities in this Amazonian biodiversity hotspot and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Join GROW, a sustainable initiative to boost local incomes, improve child and adult health and divert activity away from environmentally damaging sources of income. Volunteers with building, horticulture, organic and micro-culture skills are particularly welcome. travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk

2. Teach English in Siem Reap, Cambodia: ABOUTAsia Schools
Choose from volunteer placements in four schools in Siem Reap, teaching two English sessions a day, Monday-Friday. Student ages and abilities differ between schools and volunteer roles often include assisting local teachers. aboutasiaschools.org

3. Survey big cats in the Namibian Bush: Biosphere Expeditions
Spend two weeks with a small team in the heart of Namibia, conducting a survey of elephants and African cats (mainly leopard, but also cheetah and caracal). Learn bush skills and follow elephants and big cats on foot or in expedition vehicles to record information about animal behaviour; set cameras and live traps; conduct game counts and assist with cat capturing and collaring. biosphere-expeditions.org

4. Volunteer in the Ugandan rainforest: Responsible Travel
Join a community volunteering project in Uganda. Live on the edge of one of Africa’s most ancient tropical rainforests, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and teach budding local entrepreneurs business basics through practical initiatives and drop-in clinics. Placements range from two weeks to a year or more. responsibletravel.com

5. Harvest apples in Devon or lambing in the Lake District: National Trust
From helping out with the lambing season in the Lake District to harvesting apples and making cider in Devon, the National Trust has over 300 working holidays offering the chance to help look after some of the UK’s most prized places. For example, Help National Trust wardens harvest over 50 apple varieties from the traditionally-managed orchards on Devon’s Killerton estate. nationaltrust.org.uk 

More info
Read volunteer guidelines at:


Published in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)