We have talked about “voluntourism” a few times in the past, telling you how this “trend”among young people (mostly), has become pretty popular, but in the worst way possible. Let’s refresh the concept now and I’ll give you some tips on how to avoid falling into this “trend” (if you can call it like this) in order to stay true to the hard work many NGOs do and help other communities for the right reasons.
What is “voluntourism”?
As you can tell from the word itself, it’s the concoction of traveling to lend a hand in humanitarian projects in developing countries and using your spare time here to do some tourism and “have fun”. In most cases, “voluntourists” spend more time working in the projects than sightseeing, of course.
But the whole experience, which usually lasts for two weeks, is offered by many agencies that want to take advantage of the willing that young people have to make their trips more meaningful and still do some local tourism for a few weeks. Here is where you have to be careful.
The main issue here is that agencies and organizations that arrange these kinds of humanitarian trips tend to stress “how much the traveler is going to learn” by getting their “packages”: they will be able to teach local children, participate in some construction that’s going on in the community or assist a homeless shelter, among many other activities.
But the truth is this one: it’s totally okay to be eager to help build a better world and lend a helping hand to communities that really need it. But THEY ARE THE ONES that will benefit from this in the end, not the traveler. Of course it’s great to have your trips in a local way and learn from people who are into the humanitarian world, but if you’re going to take up and adventure of this sort, be aware of these points:
Know exactly why you are doing this
This is so important. Just keep in mind that volunteering (in the right way) is a coin of two sides. Locals show you how they live everyday, communities welcome you very warmly and they stay by your side making sure you’re getting to learn the skills you were supposed to. You can be building a library, teaching English lessons or hygiene methods… But humanitarian actions are always mutual and have a positive effect for both sides. You’re not there just spending a few days, you go there to make a difference and benefit locals with your hands and knowledge.
Do Your Research
Not only about which the best and most credible NGOs are, but get all the info you can about how the community or organization is going to sustain you. You have to be sure they can pay for your staying and you’re not taking anybody’s income and jobs when you go to your destination. You should be doing a work or task because you own certain skills that nobody else has in the community. That would be something useful, not “stealing” the job from a local because you happened to pay for “a package” that offered that kind of experience. Be sensible when mixing travel and NGO issues, wise decisions will benefit everyone!
Do Not Forget What Your Skills Are
The previous point leads me to this one. Do what you know about. Do not embark on building a house or teaching maths if you’re not qualified to do so. Can you imagine a Western hospital allowing a person without any medical studies work with them just because? I bet you don’t. Well, the same rule should be applied to any kind of project existing in undeveloped countries. Work side by side with the community building local capacities everyone can benefit from when you leave. It’s awesome to have good intentions, but it’s also necessary to have the right skills to seed a positive footprint behind you.
Work With Locals (People and Partners)
When participating in humanitarian projects, one fact you can’t deny is that locals do know what’s best for their communities. They’re the ones living there. They know perfectly their needs and how to cover them with the right tools, so benefit from their knowledge to actually have a social impact wherever you go. Local partners and organizations are the ones who also know what’s missing, what position you can fill in the community and the ones that will continue the work when you leave, so without mixing both knowledge and skills, the future impact will be actually minimum.
Look for a project that allows you to stay more than a couple of weeks
In order to get into the heart of the situation your community is living, make sure to stay the right amount of time to learn from them and get all the knowledge you can to be able to really help them, whatever your skills are. It’s very difficult to have the complete picture if you only stay for one week or ten days. Do a two or three-months trip and leverage the insights that locals and the organization itself can give you and achieve your goals properly, in due time, and empowering the ones who need it the most, locals.
Be ready to change your perspectives and adapt to the local culture
This is something you don’t realize until you start working with the communities and their insights start penetrating into your heart and mind. They are welcoming you very warmly, letting you in their everyday lives, so give it back to them by having a positive attitude towards their culture, language, customs… They might be very different from what you’re used to but keep in mind that a lack of preparation or interest means lack of respect for the community. You may see hard situations and for sure you will make mistakes (this is a learning process in the end!), but all these experiences will put everything you’ve lived into perspective. Just try it and tell us.
As you can see, it’s essential not only to have the right mindset to do a volunteer work, but to find the most suitable organization or NGO, with people and projects you love, in order to make the most out of your experience. You can read the 4 features we seek in our top non-profit organizations to know how we choose the NGOs that are part of U2GUIDE. It will really help you understand what are the most important points you should cover when choosing to support any association.
Main photo by Seth Doyle.