Volunteer travel is undermined by two cruel ironies: firstly, travellers often pay to volunteer, which goes against the whole concept of volunteering; secondly, the work travellers do in communities is often destructive.
Thriving on the goodwill of travellers, community organisations and orphanages, some travel operators have found a gap to exploit at the expense of the communities they claim to support. It has become big business in an ever-growing sector worth up to US$2.6 billion worldwide.
A market gap for volunteer travel appeared at the turn of the century when NGOs started employing people on short-term basis – since then the volunteer travel sector has outgrown its capacity to regulate itself. The codes of practice that do exist are often insubstantial and seldom adhered to; this is exacerbated by a scarcity of government regulation, so it is generally left up to operators to determine whether they follow codes of practice or not.
What makes it easier still for cowboys to dodge ethical bullets is that often scant research is done by travel agents on the operators and organisations they have on their books, and even less by volunteers themselves.
Arguably the highest demand from volunteers is to care for vulnerable children. Despite this demand there are few organisations in this sector doing thorough volunteer screening and cases of pedophilia have been reported globally. As in many parts of the world, in Cambodia families have been paid to give up their children in order for the orphanage to profit from volunteers – an official study found that barely a quarter of children in these supposed orphanages have actually lost both parents.
Even if the orphanages are legitimate, the effects are still deep reaching. Because most volunteers stay for short periods, orphans who attach to them go through separation anxiety over and over again when the volunteers leave to be replaced by others. This invites the revisitation of the trauma already suffered through the loss of parents and often leads to serious problems in forming emotional attachments in adult life. “There’s no way you can spin this as a positive impact for orphans”, says Paul Miedma of the Calabash Trust in South Africa.
Apart from orphans, Miedma expresses his concern for children’s educational and cultural development. Because most volunteers are not taught the local language, reading and communicating in English hampers the development of children who should be learning their mother tongue.
As well as the development of children, the development of adults is often put at risk. A teaching role given to a foreign volunteer means one less teaching job for a local; meanwhile, care-giving and other fundamental roles are also taken away from locals.
“Volunteer jobs are created in order to have the income from those volunteers, not in order to solve needs or problems”, says Victoria Smith, who is a specialist in the sustainable tourism sector.
The greatest potential to improve the ethics of the volunteer travel industry ultimately lies with the volunteers themselves. If they want to change the world, the best way to start would be by changing they way they travel.
Advice and resources for volunteers
- Smith says the best advice for volunteers is to do as much research as possible on the operators offering volunteer experiences.
- Smith and Miedema agree that people tend to jump at the ‘big brands’, but those are often agents and operators who exist because they charge a great deal of money, much of which goes into marketing – big brands can pay their way to the top of Google.
- Irresponsible organisations will not charge responsibly, Smith says. In her extensive analysis the more responsible organisations tend to be lower priced on comparable projects.
- Using a content analysis tool, Smith found that worst-practice operators were generally inconsistent with their messaging. Looking for consistency of messaging is key to finding best-practice operators.
- When looking at a travel agent’s list of experiences, if the name of the company or organisation is not displayed, it often means they are hiding something and have a trail of bad press.
- Ask the hard questions, such as where your volunteer money goes, what portion covers your costs and administration, and what portion goes to the community or conservation project. Ask for legitimate documentation of this. This includes asking the travel operators. As Miedema says, a good deal of money tends to stay in the developed world with the people that send the volunteers.
- It’s advisable to look for operators who have won awards from legitimate organisations such as the WTTC Travel Awards, the National Geographic/ITB Berlin World Legacy Awards and the WTM World Responsible Tourism Awards.
Previously a freelance journalist and editor of Africa Geographic, Anton Crone is CEO of Safarious, an online travel portal to the world’s wild places. Anton not only focuses on wildlife, he also finds himself drawn to the people he meets on his travels. He looks at journalism as a way to connect people of differing creeds and cultures, and through his writing and photography he tries to uphold the importance of the communities that live side by side with wildlife.