September 30, 2020

STORY AND PHOTOS
BY CALEIGH MCLELLAND

With eagerness and good intentions, more people every year are taking off to developing countries on volunteer vacations. This type of experience, which has been termed “voluntourism,” is exactly what it sounds like: volunteer work mixed with travel.

And while seeing a new place, doing fun activities and giving back sound like the perfect combination, there is a lot more to think about before jetting off than how much money to bring or what clothes to pack.

There have been questions as to who really benefits from voluntourism and if it is actually doing more harm than good in developing countries. This is something that people need to consider before choosing an organization to volunteer abroad with.

First, “know what you can offer,” said Sean Kelly, head of communications at Cuso International, an organization that sends skilled volunteers abroad to promote sustainable development.

“Just helping out and building a school may be a good thing to do, but remember that local folks can also do this, probably better than you,” he said.

For this reason, it is important to carefully research a variety of organizations in order to find one that does not interfere with local employment, but also allows you to help out and use your skills.

At times, voluntourism has also been criticized for its lack of sustainable development.

While many people choose long-term volunteer placements, many more are choosing short-term volunteer vacations. Students who want a unique experience over their summer holiday, or want work experience before applying to post-secondary school or the job force, often volunteer for just a couple of weeks.

According to Kelly, “most Cuso International placements are one to two years in length, as experience has shown us that it takes some time to adapt, build relationships, be effective and make an impact.”

That is not to say that short-term placements are not beneficial. But, like giving a one-time donation to a charity or temporarily sponsoring a child, depending on the job, short-term volunteer placements can end up not being so helpful after all.

It’s easy to help build a school, promote human rights or educate people about environmental conservation, but unless the volunteer organization continues to follow up and maintain the projects once the volunteers leave, projects can quickly fall apart.

“A month may seem like a fairly long time in a completely different environment,” said Benjamin Price, former Projects Abroad volunteer. “But is it really a reasonable length of time to make a difference?”

The answer to making a difference while only volunteering for a short amount of time is to choose an organization that thinks about the long-term impact. Even if volunteers are unable to stay for months, working alongside local groups who know first-hand what their community’s needs are is the best way to create sustainable development.

For example, as the world’s leading international volunteer organization, Projects Abroad helps to “create local employment wherever they send volunteers. And because they work with local colleagues at all levels, they are able to channel the skills of volunteers to places they are really needed.”

“I feel really strongly about working with people, and empowering them to find ways of combining their traditional way of living with techniques that make sense,” said Jenna Niven, a Toronto resident who volunteered with children in Ecuador.

Being culturally aware, accepting the lifestyle and taking local advice is a great start to any volunteer placement. By doing this, volunteers are better able to make a long-term difference, as they are supplying the community with the help they really need. And this way all parties benefit.

“From a volunteer’s point of view, volunteering is obviously a great way to understand other cultures a bit more – something which is vital in a global community,” Price said.

And if done properly, it can be very beneficial for the locals, too.

Niven added that people should “look for local organizations who know what their population needs, as well as organizations that are actively working with the community they are in, and follow the principle of not giving a hand out, but a hand up.”