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.
What 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.
Our 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. The 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.
When 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. 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. We’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.”
By Anita and Richard, March, 2014