While joining and leading volunteer programs in Asia for the past decade, I have seen many of the same mistakes repeated over and over again when it comes to international "voluntourism." Here are some of the common problems I have seen in the voluntourism market and some tips for travelers on how to choose the right program.
Creating one-off projects which have little long-term impact
Often times the real needs of a project are not things that volunteers can easily support. Language barriers, lack of local knowledge and lack of skills prevent volunteers from being a good fit for most development project needs, so instead tour companies often create projects for the travelers.
Real life example: I traveled with a tour company that decided to allow us to paint the school that was on their bike route. We painted it poorly as we rushed to complete it in one day (and most of us felt too tired to put in a big effort). We probably spent over $200 on paint (25 percent of which we dropped on the floor). The project was in rural Thailand, and $200 could have probably bought a lot of educational resources, hired a few teachers for a month, or done a list of other things which would have added more educational value than our patchy blue paint job.
How to choose: Ask the tour operator about their relationship with the NGO partner. Have they worked together for a long time? How do they choose what projects the travelers will engage in? Get in touch with both someone who has gone on the trip before and someone working in the country where you are visiting to get their perspective on the company and NGO partner as this will shine a more realistic light on the situation.
Forgetting that volunteers are NOT free
A lot of tour operators will bring their clients to a project and expect an NGO or community program to entertain their guests by speaking to them about their work or organizing a small volunteer project. They put the NGOs or orphanages on their website, sell them to clients as part of a tour, yet keep all of the tour profits themselves.
Real life example: At PEPY, the educational development organization I worked with for six years in Cambodia, we sometimes got requests from tour companies to come see our education projects. They often say they can't give a donation but, "We leave it up to the tourists to see if they want to donate!" But it should not be the tourists' responsibility to ensure that the development partner gets value out of the trip in exchange for their time. When we first started our programs we offered school tours but no longer do, both to preserve management time for education programs, and to avoid turning schools into tourist attractions.
How to choose: If you know that your skills are not matched with the needs of a project, or the tour company you are traveling with is taking the time of development workers or community groups and not compensating them, travel with someone else.
Giving things away
I have learned through seeing the negative effects of an unbridled tourism culture of "giving things to the poor people," that this practice can destroy local markets, create community jealousy and create a culture of dependency.
Real life example: I wish this was not real, but sadly, this is what some "responsible tourism" has come to. I have seen tour operators in Cambodia where you can pay $45 for the day to be driven out to a "poor village where you can hand out food or school supplies to the poor family of your choice." It's like buying food pellets at the zoo to feed the goats. Except these are people. Not goats.
How to choose: Question any organization that allows you and your tour group to go anywhere to "hand out school supplies" or "deliver a book to a child." If those items are needed, they could be distributed through local power structures in ways where those with the highest needs are prioritized, or where capacity building needs are tied in with those programs.
Monitoring projects poorly or not at all
How can a tour company that comes through an area a few times a year know that they are "improving lives through our wells"? Do they go back and test them? Fix them? Get feedback? Sometimes we think we are helping people, but it is not until we try it and fail that we realize our plan was flawed. What is worse is if we continue to repeat our failures, either from lack of willingness to admit them, or lack of effort to research our impacts.
Real life example: A tour company in India allowed tourists to hand out goats to families on their tours. In the middle of the tour, a person from a nearby community came and told the director that the man who had been put in charge of choosing which poor families should get the goats had been charging the families for the goats for years. The tour company had been making their English speaking tour guide rich, were not helping "the poorest of the poor" that they claimed to be, and had furthered corruption and mistrust in the village.
How to choose: Ask about the NGO's monitoring plan. If you are building any structures or giving away any technology, find out how those things are being put to use and who will monitor the needs in case of damage or need for improvements.
Giving unskilled volunteers jobs that require skills
Even painting requires some skills, and clearly our group in Thailand didn't have them. If we don't know how to do what we are supposed to be doing as volunteers, we might cause more harm than good, and at minimum, we will waste a lot of people's time.
Real life example: There are many orphanages in Cambodia that take volunteers to teach English. When the travelers leave, the classes have no teacher, there is no curriculum to ensure that the students aren't learning "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes." Plus, the influx of unchecked travelers means that the children are put at risk of abuse, attachment issues, or being used as fundraising tools. If instead skilled volunteers had spent time teaching English teachers English, they would have at least improved the system slightly, so that when they left, the teachers were better equipped to offer ongoing classes.
How to choose: If you are looking for a long-term placement, make sure to pick an operator that does very thorough matching of skills and needs. For short-term placements, choose groups focused on educating you as a traveler, and giving you the skills and tools to improve the world when you go home. One of the most important lessons I learned is that we have to learn before we can help. Choosing a trip focused on your education will empower you to be better equipped to support responsible initiatives in the future. At PEPY Tours, the education travel company we founded to support our development program partners, we started by offering service-learning options where you could "save the world in a week." We then realized it should be about learning-service and learning about development issues that can inspire people to improve the way they give, travel, and live in the future. Choose a group that lets you learn: get interested or get angry, and then go do something as that way you have the other 358 days of the year and the rest of your life to make a difference.
Fostering moral imperialism
This one is the biggest problem, but perhaps the least considered. Many of us assume, because we come from wealthier places with better education systems, that we can come into any new place without knowing much about the culture or the people, and we can fix things. Many programs, like some I had done in the past, even allow you to fundraise for your flights to the project. Who are we to think that our time is so valuable that we should fundraise money to pay for OUR flights to go do something like paint a school poorly? Development work is complex and takes time, and the people we are visiting have just as much, if not more to teach us than we have to teach them.
Real life example: Just search for voluntourism on the web. "Come to XXXXX Africa and save the world," followed by instructions on how to fundraise tax-free dollars, which include the price of your travel abroad.
How to choose: If we are going to send our students abroad without charging them, we should at least tell them the truth: They are the ones benefiting in this situation. If you find a company that discusses the trip as "life-changing" for the communities you are visiting, search further until you find one that admits that the real selling point is that the experience will be life-changing for you. That is OK! That is why we travel, so let's not try to hide that. If people still decide to fundraise for their travel, then they should be honest that the funds are for their learning, not for their helping.
It's time to stop making the same mistakes
Making the overall impact of socially focused travel more positive will take a movement of travelers demanding responsible practices from their operators. Remember, you vote with your money. Seek out opportunities to learn and to have a positive impact, and when you find an organization causing harm, speak up. Share this piece with people you know who might be considering volunteer travel and add comments if there are additional lessons you feel could be helpful to others. Now that enough of us have done these things and learned from them, it is time for us to help prevent others from making the same mistakes.