Wanting to travel and experience new cultures around the globe is surely a good thing. You could say the same about volunteering. People who volunteer overseas generally hope to do something interesting that they’ll learn from and that will help other people. But do volunteering opportunities really benefit host communities or merely exploit the good intentions of well-meaning volunteers? The upsides of international volunteering are well advertised, but there are downsides to consider too.
UK volunteers can pay thousands of pounds (most going to the tour operator) to undertake short volunteering placements overseas, which although well intentioned, can often do more harm than good. For example, we know from feedback that volunteers often have unfulfilling and disappointing experiences; volunteer placements can prevent local workers from getting much-needed jobs; hard-pressed institutions waste time looking after them and money upgrading facilities; and abused or abandoned children form emotional attachments to the visitors, who increase their trauma by disappearing back home after a few weeks.
Although there are well respected development charities that arrange for professionals to spend one or two years overseas, many of the volunteering placements being offered by commercial operators are little more than expensive holidays. Finally many volunteers have misplaced idealism, misconceived attitudes and unrealistic expectations of what they can offer local communities.
There are many opportunities for people to undertake meaningful volunteering in their own community, where they will receive proper training, support and supervision – without the need to pay a tour operator for the privilege. In the majority of cases people would be far better (and have a more rewarding experience) volunteering at home and spending their money on travelling and staying in places listed in our Ethical Travel Guide. They would then experience the real community and the community would get real benefits as a result.
Volunteers also need to be realistic in what they can offer and appreciate that however well meaning volunteering may result in more harm than good. This is especially the case when volunteering with vulnerable children – eg: volunteering in orphanages is fuelling the demand for “orphans”, and so driving the unnecessary separation of children from their families.
Of course there are some very good organisations sending volunteers overseas and we Tourism Concern is working with most of them via our Ethical Volunteering Group. These organistions aim to promote best practice in international volunteering, to maximise the beneficial developmental impacts in the communities where volunteering takes place, minimise the negative impacts, and to ensure volunteers have a worthwhile experience