Giving back, making a difference but seeing the world at the same time is a noble way to travel. We don’t all have the time to spend a month or a few months volunteering in a village or school, but for those who can it is a wonderful way to explore a new culture. It certainly is a way to see a country for what it really is, and not just the touristy areas or activities that will often only give us a glimpse of that country.
So what exactly is Voluntourism?
Traveling and volunteering has been described by many different names, volunteer travel, volunteer vacations, vacanteerism and recently voluntourism. Some folks will include some volunteering into their vacation and some will travel for the sole purpose of volunteering. The volunteering can take on a variety of characteristics, from low skill labor such as helping with maintenance in a village to highly skilled jobs such as volunteering in a medical or education capacity. You won’t get free board and lodging. You will need to pay for your volunteer experience. Your fees will help the volunteer organization and the projects they are working on. You will also be responsible to pay your own travel expenses.
This has typically been young adults, either straight out of high school or taking a gap year. Some are college graduates looking for a way to boost their resumes while seeing a bit of the world. Others are baby boomers who are looking at making a difference. This is a way for older volunteers to take a guilt free vacation. Research and surveys have recorded that although the travel industry took a serious knock over the last few years, volunteer travel stayed steady.
How do you choose a program?
Choose a program that is at least recognized by the local, regional or country tourism board. This way you are less likely to join a program that is exploiting a community, people or animals. You might want to ask them questions such as whether they are accountable to any government body or welfare organization. You could also ask if they have been audited, or if they receive regular visits from authorities to evaluate their practices. With so many scams and exploitations in the market we can not be too careful and ask too many questions. Perhaps ask for referrals and verify them.
Make sure that the organization you choose is one that promotes sustainable growth in the community. Many times even the best intentions are destructive. As an example: Bringing in volunteers to build a school may take jobs away from locals who really need the money.
One of the complaints about volunteer organizations/groups is that they don’t always talk to the locals and ask them what they need. Do they need a larger school or would they prefer a clinic? Maybe the village already has a school even if it is a small one. Perhaps they would prefer regular donations of school supplies, such as pencils, text books, chalk or library books. Perhaps a bigger school can wait and a vegetable garden would be a great idea. Could they use help getting that started, so that they can feed the kids a healthy lunch? Do they have kitchen to cook the food in? Maybe the school just needs some improvements like plumbing.
There have been occasions when a project or even an organization has run out of funding. It is therefore important to choose a well established volunteer group to work with. One that has a reputation for finishing what they started, in other words they are promoting sustainable volunteering programs.
Variety of volunteer programs
There are hundreds of ways to help. First choose your destination then explore the different projects available in the area. You might want to Google for ideas or write to the local tourism offices, ask your travel agent or safari lodge, hotel or bed and breakfast where you will be staying. I can almost guarantee that they will know of a project in their area.
Know your facts before you go
• Really make an effort to understand what you are getting yourself into.
• Understand that there may be risks, either political, safety or health related.
• Find out if there are any travel warnings to the country you are traveling to.
• Talk to the country embassy and arm your self with all the vaccinations you will need.
• What kind of medication can you take with you? Some OTCs are banned in African countries because they contain banned ingredients.
• Research the culture and be sure that you are comfortable with it. Some cultures are strict about the role a woman plays in the community or you may need to dress according to custom.
I might start sounding like a stuck record but seriously, do the research before you make any final decisions. Volunteering should be a positive experience that you can talk to your family and friends about. It should inspire not frighten the wits out of them.
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Author: Principle writer – Celeste Wilson
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