Living and working in Cambodia, we witness on a daily basis the fast-moving and burgeoning voluntourism industry. It’s not uncommon to see truck loads (literally) of young well-intentioned travellers heading out to schools or villages. Siem Reap is firmly on the good-willed globetrotters map, and projects have clocked on. Placement providers are becoming increasingly business savvy to attract new volunteers and are reaping the economic benefits.
Therefore, we have a set of clear values about the volunteer travel industry.
Amy was recently interviewed by Columbus Direct (full article here) on the subject, and here a few highlights which capture our views on the subject:
Lots of people want to volunteer for their gap years, or to ‘give something back’; however, there are downsides. Please can you tell me more about these?
The desire to volunteer and ‘give something back’ is often fuelled by very good intentions, and is something that should be nurtured. Sadly, sometimes, the positive impact volunteers had hoped to make doesn’t. This is often because they may not have the necessary skills or much time available to invest in long term benefits – development work is incredibly complicated and many professionals in the field have trained for many years.
In addition, with so many volunteer opportunities now advertised, it can be challenging for potential volunteers to understand which is a project worth supporting. In Cambodia, an example of this is the booming orphanage tourism industry.
Does not speaking the language or being skilled enough become a drawback, so people are doing more harm than good?
Speaking the local language is a great asset because communications is more fluid, and people can share their ideas and emotions. That said, if you have the right skills development organisations are looking for, but cannot speak the local language, there may still be ways to make a positive difference by training people in your skills with a reliable translator.
Everyone is skilled in something, but when considering volunteering in the development sector, often in vulnerable communities, it is especially important volunteers have skills that are actually needed. If a volunteer doesn’t speak the local language and has no skills to offer, they’re setting themselves up to fail, as well as the communities they aim to serve.
An alternative to a voluntourism experience could be travelling to a destination with a responsible travel company that focuses on meaningful connections with local people and inspiring initiatives. This way, you can begin to fully understand the culture, how people live, and projects or social businesses worth investing in.
Do you think lots of volunteers confuse volunteering for a holiday that they balance out with a little bit of work?
The current climate of marketing volunteer travel can be confusing; the messages being sent to volunteers often portray holidays with purpose.
Volunteering overseas has changed a lot over recent years. It used to be a relatively exclusive club for very skilled individuals willing to give up long periods of time, lots of energy, and home comforts to help remote locations. There has been huge growth in travel companies leveraging on peoples’ good intentions by offering volunteer holidays, commonly known as ‘voluntourism’ experiences. They’re sold as short-term trips for good intentioned travellers to combine overseas adventure with ‘giving back’.
Has volunteering become a fashionable thing to do, as opposed to an activity that people do as they genuinely want to help?
I think the desire to help those in need has always been around, but the opportunities to do that in tropical locations were previously inaccessible for so many people. Now that international travel is increasingly accessible for more people, more people can consider this as an option. In 2008 I wrote my thesis on just this! I explored how volunteer travel had almost become a rite of passage for many young people – my conclusion was that people do have a genuine desire to help, and through education, peer-to-peer, and media, young people are certainly being exposed to the concept as a ‘thing to do’ to enhance your CV and social status.
There has been lots of critique written about communities that become reliant on handouts and outsider help; it is often referred to as ‘toxic charity’.
The most successful development projects are normally when the community is solving their problems for themselves. Sometimes communities may initially need outside help to gather the skills they may need, or seek funding. Volunteers can play a vital part in the process of capacity building and fundraising.
We are big advocates of the Learning Service movement, an educational resource for more responsible volunteering. The campaign aims to harness people’s best intentions and make real positive impact in the communities volunteers seek to serve. We believe there are many ways in which volunteers and those hosting them can do it better.
Check out the Learning Service videos here. It includes advice for potential, current, and past volunteers to understand how to make lasting difference.
The Voluntourist Movie
Sarah and Amy from Ayana Journeys (in this video representing our educational travel partners PEPY Tours) are proud to have been part of this short documentary on voluntoursm – watch and enjoy!