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By Celine Asril (@celineasril)     22 Jul 2016

Combining travel with volunteer work is getting a bad rap. Celine Asril looks at the pitfalls and how to avoid them

We love to travel, though it’s not enough to just see the world anymore: we want our experiences to be meaningful too. Whether that’s through traveling in a more connected way or holidaying with a purpose, there’s an impulse to give to, not just take from, a destination.

Combining travel with volunteering has been the mainstay of many a Western student’s gap year. But ‘voluntourism,’ as it’s now known, has a come a long way from its roots in Herb Feith’s work in Indonesia in the 1950s, and global organizations such as Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and the Peace Corps.

Today, this vacation-with-a-cause industry is reported to be worth $173 billion, and David Clemmons of the VolunTourism Institute calls it ‘undoubtedly the most notable travel trend of the early 21st century.’

But it’s a loaded concept. Critics talk about volunteers taking local jobs and padding CVs, hit-and-run projects that the supposed beneficiaries don’t even need or want—and worse. Many agencies charge high fees, asking volunteers to fundraise to take part in their programs. And the ‘opportunities’ come in many guises, from the good to the bad to the downright ugly.

A help or a hindrance?

So how can we tell the real deal from the ego trips? First, it’s important to nail down our motivation and be honest about what we’d like to take away from the volunteering experience, whether we’re seeking cultural exchange, interaction with other people, a glow from ‘giving back’ or all of the above.

‘…all I’d be bringing to that project was my ability to wield a shovel—something many people living there could do themselves, and they could get paid for doing it.’

The feel-good factor is certainly a big part of the volunteering experience. When researchers at the London School of Economics looked at the relationship between volunteering and measures of happiness, they found that the more time people spent volunteering, the happier they were. Mark Horoszowski, co-founder of MovingWorlds—a platform that connects volunteers with social-impact organizations based on the expertise they can offer—argues that volunteering creates social bonds that contribute directly to feelings of belonging. Other research conducted at Harvard Business School and the University of British Columbia shows that the way you travel in general is as good a medium as any to consider how to practice kindness.

So how do you ensure you’re not doing bad while you’re trying to do good? One way is to look for projects developed in tandem with local communities with the end goal of empowering them to take over and sustain the projects, so that the need for volunteers becomes redundant. Another is to ask who, if anyone, would be doing this work if you weren’t. As Malaysia-based travel writer and author Martin Stevenson came to realize: ‘If I have no specialist skills to offer, all I’d be bringing to that project was my ability to wield a shovel—something many people living there could do themselves, and they could get paid for doing it.’

You also need to be aware of how your very presence as a volunteer can change dynamics or perpetuate a problem. In Cambodia, between 2005 and 2010, the number of children living with their parents fell and the number of orphanages in the country rose by 75 percent, as ‘orphanage tourism’ became big business. About 77 percent of children living in institutions are not actually orphaned and would be better off, and safer, living with family—sadly, the presence of volunteers lends credibility to unregistered orphanages, putting some kids at risk of abuse and sexual exploitation.

Phnom Penh­–based Friends-International is behind ChildSafe, a global child-protection system, and says the way to help is by supporting the children’s families or by making a financial donation to local organizations that do.

Choosing the right project

These issues might make you wonder whether you should volunteer at all—but there are still plenty of sectors in which paying volunteers enable organizations to do vital work. Some portals and organizations are more transparent than others in the way they match the skills you offer with the places where they’re needed.

Grassroots Volunteering links to organizations in nine destinations in Asia, including Cambodia, India, Nepal and Malaysia, so would-be volunteers can sign up directly. Not-for-profit Planeterra Foundation receives donations from its founding company, G Adventures, to develop projects with local, grassroots organizations in the respective countries. These projects help strengthen social-enterprise opportunities and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women in communities around Asia and the rest of the world.

While most offer short- to medium-term volunteer experiences, Habitat for Humanity, a well-established organization whose audited financial statements are available to the public, has some longer-term options.

It’s usually possible to approach groups directly, too, especially if you’re interested in forming a stronger, longer-term relationship. The range of possibilities is vast, from working on a Dumpsite Project with Philippines-based Volunteer for the Visayans, which aims to draw children away from trash collection and help them enroll in school, to helping communities protect their cultural heritage. Check out Restoration Works International that’s currently preserving and renewing historic buildings in Nepal, and looking at potential new projects in India, Thailand and Cuba. Based in the US, its philosophy is that 85 percent of voluntourists’ donations stays within the country’s own economy.

Some qualified individuals have set up their own projects where they’ve seen a need for their skills. Clination Indonesia is a group of young volunteer doctors who go on the road to offer free primary healthcare to lesser-reached communities of Indonesia.

‘We believe that the best kind of aid that we can give is the one that will last for a long period,’ says Clination co-founder, 24-year-old Debryna Lumanauw. ‘This is why we put a lot work into educating people about disease prevention and how to promote a healthier lifestyle, rather than merely giving medication.’

When she started the project, Lumanauw bought medical supplies with her own money, but after successful projects on Siangang, an island between Sumatra and Java, and in Borobudur, she’s received donations from other doctors elsewhere.

‘Our mission is simply to improve the quality of life of the folks in isolated areas of Indonesia while traveling,’ she says, ‘and having fun, of course.’

Dessy Aswim, 25, spent a day with the organization on West Java, shooting a video of the volunteers at work. ‘It was inspiring to witness this group of young doctors change the healthcare landscape for the community through small changes that will clearly have big impact,’ she says.

If you’re paying to take part in any kind of voluntary work, it’s important to ask where or who the fees will go to, and how else the organization’s efforts will directly benefit the communities.

ConCERT, a community-minded responsible-tourism enterprise based in Siem Reap, Cambodia, has a good list of questions to kick off this process, while Daniela Papi, a trainer specializing in personal and global development education, has learned from experience to ask questions that point to the long-term.

For more in-depth reading, Shannon O’Donnell—founder of Grassroots Volunteering, National Geographic’s Traveler of the Year 2013 and a public speaker on voluntourism—has authored The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook to guide people through the challenges of finding, vetting and choosing their ideal volunteer experience.

As ConCERT warns, we should be wary if the volunteer program resists putting us in touch with previous volunteers or locals, is unable to clearly explain our role within its overall plans, or if its main focus is how we will make payment.

It’s also important to know our own limitations, so we don’t end up being more of a hindrance than a help to the community hosting us. The journey of a volunteer will not always be a comfortable one—we’ll be exposed to less-than-ideal conditions, likely experiencing previously uncharted emotions and encountering instability, often due to a lack of infrastructure. In these fluid, trying conditions halfway across the world, a positive and open mindset helps.

Which brings us back to that search for connection that many volunteers seek. Traveling in a more connected way is a mindset rather than a project you can buy in to or a choice of holiday styles. Reciprocity, genuine curiosity, openness and a willingness to share go a long way to empowering us as travelers—and volunteers.

Share your thoughts on voluntourism to #momentumtravel.

Photo: Alamy

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