VolunTOURISM Versus Volunteering

One of our goals as long-term travelers is to volunteer two or three months at a time while we are in a locale for a longer stay.  Before we left the US we researched various countries, organizations and types of volunteer positions available overseas.  This led us, a few months later, to the option of joining an international volunteer agency and paying for the volunteer experience.  Following that, we discovered the in-country approach: arrive at a destination and start making personal inquiries of the locals and expats to find out what opportunities are available.

Toothbrush dayWhat we discovered in the process of our volunteer experiences is that we unwittingly became part of the “voluntourism” boom.   Voluntourism, or volunteering as a tourist, is promoted as a way to have an authentic and meaningful cultural experience (a sort of working vacation, if you will) while providing needed benefits to local individuals or communities. It provides nervous travelers to third-world countries with a hand-holding experience: contacts and a safety net with new, built-in friends.  However, it’s also an unregulated business sector which attracts huge amounts of money, advertises appealing good-works projects and draws in hoards of people wanting to do their part to improve the world. And all of this is with little or no oversight. It is both a buyer’s and a seller’s market. Almost any volunteer assignment can be found on the internet for a price and the old Latin injunction, caveat emptor, should be kept in mind.

Teaching English in GuatamalaOur first volunteer experience in Antigua, Guatemala was secured through a New Zealand agency with whom we felt relatively comfortable due to their transparent accounting profile. The time volunteering in the Antonio Escobar y Castro School was a phenomenal experience. However, the costs proved to be another matter. School girls in AntiguaThe fees ostensibly covered the room-and-board for a home-stay (which proved to be much less than satisfactory), the materials needed for the work at the school (which proved to be woefully inadequate) and the administrative costs of the company (which appeared to be more than generously staffed and housed). In our Antigua sojourn we discovered that the typical volunteer was a younger, predominantly white client who spent two weeks or less in the assignment minus the time for three or four day week-end jaunts to tourist destinations arranged by the local agency.

Activity dayWhen we started looking for our second volunteer gig, having gained some insight from our Antigua adventure, (fool me once shame on you, ….) we spoke with a trusted friend who told us about Education Plus Nicaragua and supplied an email address.  We contacted them, discussed our qualifications and their needs, met the directors of the NGO and found out they’d be delighted to have certified English teachers.Coloring  We signed on for a three month commitment and we’ve approached this experience as we would any job paid or not; we come on time prepared to work and do our best to make sure the kids learn. ColoringWe’ve discovered that there are a myriad of NGO’s worthy of our personal support and we need not pay an intermediary to perform our due diligence or secure our lodging. The current organization is small but growing.  It hires – to the extent possible – local, Nicaraguan personnel and is supported by the immediate community. In those respects it has a decent chance of becoming self-sustaining with secured capital funding from abroad.

Does all of this mean that going through an agency to volunteer is a less than worthwhile endeavor? Not necessarily. It can be quite costly. It can be a non-productive or even counter-productive experience when there is a mismatch between the volunteer and the work. And there is some evidence to support the notion that “voluntourism” has become one more commodity in the western world’s list of conspicuous consumption items. But if there is a good fit between the individual and the project and the program is reputable then wonderful experiences can await. But as always, “Let the buyer beware.”Angel smiling

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

22 comments

  • Kudos that you realized so quickly what was the right way to go about volunteering. I know from NGO professionals that volunteering can do more harm than good. I’m sure you’ve heard similar stories,so I won’t elaborate, but short term stays aren’t practical for, say, working with children, who form attachments, need time to be confident with adults etc etc. If anyone is considering short term volunteerism, they should try conversation work or maybe archealogical digs, where the work is more physical, so possibly the “feel good” factor is less, but in the long run they are doing more good.

    BTW very much enjoying scrolling back through your blog!

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    • I’m so glad you’re enjoying our blog and commented on our Voluntourism post. It’s disheartening to see people exploited on both sides of this business, especially when so many people have their hearts in the right place and want to contribute. We’re looking forward to volunteering again in the future with an NGO when we find another city to settle in for a few months.

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  • Very interesting to read your first-hand experiences about this intriguing aspect of travel.

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    • There seem to be as many ways to volunteer as there are ways to travel. One’s experiences can be trivial or meaningful, expensive or budget, impact people in a positive or negative way and on and on. Our take-away lesson was that a little bit of on-the-ground research for our second international volunteer gig made our involvement volunteering and teaching much more satisfying personally.

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  • Volunteering is a wonderful way to really enjoy the people and especially the children. I just loved the little guy making rabbit ears with his fingers for the photo. I guess this gesture is international.

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    • You’re right, Neva, about volunteering being a great way to meet the local people and their kids as well as people from all over the world. As travelers, it makes us feel more connected and that we’re part of a community. Regarding international gestures, the rabbit ears (or devil horns!) seems to be common whenever the camera comes out for group photos of kids but the peace sign also seems to be a universal sign.

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  • Great advice and warnings for those looking for there opportunities. Gosh, the picture at the top of your blog looks like a street paved with gold:-) at least gold trees!

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  • Suzanne Fluhr (Boomeresque)

    I disagree with the commenter above who said they would only visit a developing country if they could make a difference (implying a volunteer type experience). For many of those countries, tourism is a major engine of the local economies. In addition to putting cash into workers’ pockets, tourist dollars also provide some of the means for these places to preserve their historical and cultural patrimony. If you have the time and resources to help, by all means do, but don’t think that regular tourism is ipso facto, necessarily, a “bad” thing.

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    • Suzanne, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. In so many of the cities and “third-world” countries that we’ve visited tourism is what’s keeping food on people’s tables and making a huge difference between living in poverty and providing for one’s family. The tourist dollar also preserves, maintains and improves the impressive historical and scenic locations that visitors come to see. I hope I didn’t imply that voluntourism is always a bad thing. Our personal experience with a big volunteer agency turned us off because we saw that our very high volunteer fees seemed to be siphoned off into the salaries, offices and administrative overhead rather than the programs we thought we were supporting. In our second experience, where we had the opportunity to meet the directors, we saw right away that there was no extravagance or waste. Everything we contributed, from our time and energy to photocopied coloring activities made a significant and positive, direct impact on the program. Anita

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  • So inspiring. I love the smiles on the children’s’ faces. You clearly are making a difference and I thank you for that.

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  • Very interesting post. I’ve made the decision that I’m only visiting developing countries if I’m doing something or ANYTHING to make a difference. I will be very careful when choosing an assignment because I agree that the “job” and volunteer must be a good fit to make it worthwhile for both.

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    • There are so many NGO’s here in Nicaragua that are worth investigating and volunteering both time and/or money. It’s really been an eye-opener to see the difference that people can make with so few resources! It makes me smile and I get a feel good moment that I can play a little part in making some positive changes for some of the kids. Anita

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  • Although I haven’t done any voluntourism to date, I am intrigued by international volunteer opportunities. I’ve often wondered whether the volunteer trips did more harm than good and served only to make a western tourist feel good about themselves. Thanks for providing this perspective. As with everything, research is important.

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    • I have to agree that the “feel good” aspect of volunteering is one of the reasons we keep doing it. However, I also have to agree that research is important to make sure that a project is something the community really needs, that our time, effort and money are supporting something we believe in as well as a project that will continue after we volunteers leave.

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  • Hi Nita and Dick

    I applaud your creative energy and assume the role of teacher and student. I cherish my 6 week stay in Granada and my contacts with staff and student at EduPlusNicaragua. Hopefully, your computers are working and you received my mailing of the New York Times report on Granada. I love reading reports on my previous destinations.

    Keep moving and keep well.

    Maida

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  • This is so interesting, Anita and Dick! I’ve always been a bit skeptical of these “volun-tourism” projects myself. I’ll pass on the info. And by the way, the pics of you are so cute with the kids! I look forward to your posts…

    xo Lisa

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  • ANGEL!!! I love this picture of him! :)

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