The following feature appears in the Spring 2016 issue of Medley Magazine.
A blank spot on a resume and a crisis in an underdeveloped country; for someone with the means to do so, the trend of voluntourism presents the opportunity to not only bolster that experience section but to try to make a positive impact. But before booking that plane ticket, take a second to stop and make sure that the community’s not actually receiving more harm than good in the process.
Voluntourism, traveling abroad to volunteer, has an annual net worth of $173 billion according to StudentMarketing, a youth travel research and intelligence consultancy. Given this, it’s no surprise that voluntourism appeals to organizations more concerned with making a profit than aiding the community. In Cambodia, the United Nation’s Children’s Fund found nearly three out of four children in the country’s orphanages actually had one living parent. These kids were being separated from their families for the sake of exploiting the wallets of misguided—yet assumably well-meaning—tourists. Often, community rebuilding projects do little but steal jobs from skilled locals and replace them with unskilled and outsourced labor. And the list of ethical and practical issues doesn’t end there.
Dara Kok, the current service and philanthropy director for Syracuse’s Kappa Alpha Theta fraternity, speaks first hand on the difficulty of many voluntourism ventures. “Any volunteering involving child care often just isn’t helpful,” she says. “It would be so much better to just donate money toward giving the children a steady teacher instead of these programs that bring in a new, and often under-qualified, teacher every few weeks.” This ultimately leads to an inadequate education, as lessons are constantly stopping, restarting, or being abandoned altogether.
“Rarely does merely providing handouts to a community aid the economy—on the flip side, it potentially aids in its destruction by limiting the need for inter-community commerce.”
Some organizations promise to rebuild communities that are either affected by poverty or disaster, and don’t always draw from the local infrastructure. Even The Red Cross has been accused of this—an NPR report from 2015 revealed their propensity for overpaying foreign workers that perform minimal work. With this in mind, it’s important to inquire as to where the supplies and labor force for these projects are coming from—locally sourced supplies help build the local economy and provide jobs for skilled craftsman. Rarely does merely providing handouts to a community aid the economy—on the flip side, it potentially aids in its destruction by limiting the need for inter-community commerce.
In order to make the most positive impact, a prospective volunteer should place the utmost importance on researching any organizations under consideration. Inquire about an organization’s long term goals as a judge of character. If they can’t discuss the parameters of their developmental plan and future goals for their project then they probably don’t have one.
“When an organization only allows its volunteers to work for a limited amount of time and on limited projects it can impede them from making any real progress.”
Kok, who spent 12 weeks abroad working on various projects in Costa Rica, advises looking into a program’s itinerary right away. When an organization only allows its volunteers to work for a limited amount of time and on limited projects it can impede them from making any real progress. She suggests that programs with a little less structure and with a wider array of tasks to be accomplished often allow its volunteers to provide the most assistance to the community.
Fortunately, plenty of resources exist for those unsure of how to find reputable programs. Sites like GoAbroad.com offer prospective volunteers a platform to find programs and access reviews from alumni to make sure that they’re making the right decision. GoAbroad verifies various programs, signifying to potential volunteers that the organization conforms to a “high standard of business practices and provides exceptional international programs,” based on both positive reviews and interviews with the Go Abroad staff and past alumnae.
However, for those still concerned over whether their work will help or harm, Kok suggests looking for organizations offering more straight-forward work. “I spent two weeks in Monte Verde, Costa Rica on a coffee farm picking and planting coffee beans,” she says. “Projects like that are great because they don’t really have too many harmful effects, and if anything a deficit in labor means they need more help.”
While a little careful planning and research can insure that a venture abroad brings positive aid to a community in need, it’s important to remember that opportunities to volunteer exist locally. While the temptation to travel in an globalising society may present a unique opportunity to do some good and see the world, sometimes the places most in need of help are located just around the corner.
written by Emily Magnifico