Tag Archives: voluntourism

Medical Voluntourism Can Cause Serious Harm

In a recent blog hosted by the Scientific American, Noelle Sullivan, a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, says her research shows that some people volunteering abroad for a few weeks, or several weeks, to engage in medical “help” for people in developing countries “does indeed cause harm. In fact, the international volunteer placement industry opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes.”

Empirical data about the medical voluntourism industry is sparse, but Sullivan does have solid data: “I’ve studied medical volunteering in Tanzania since 2011, including over 1,600 hours observing volunteer-patient interactions across six health facilities. I have spoken with more than 200 foreign volunteers in Tanzania, plus conducted formal interviews with 48 foreign volunteers and 90 hosting health professionals.

She notes a variety of voluntourism web sites that invite volunteers with little or no medical training to do invasive procedures abroad, including providing vaccines, pulling teeth, providing male circumcisions, suturing and delivering babies. “Most volunteers I’ve observed deliver at least one baby, despite being unlicensed to do so.”

Her examples in the article are stunning: in Tanzania in 2015, her team encountered a young woman that’s called Mary in her article:

Mary routinely delivered babies unassisted by local midwives because she appeared familiar with the procedure—a skill she said she learned in 2013 on a previous volunteer stint.

Mary violated obstetrics best practices, doing unnecessary episiotomies (cutting the skin between the vaginal opening and anus to make room for the baby’s head) and pulling breech babies (babies positioned bottom instead of head-first in the birth canal). Once routine in obstetrics, current guidelines restrict episiotomy to exceptional cases because they may cause permanent problems for the mother, including incontinence. Meanwhile, pulling breech babies can cause suffocation.

After Mary’s departure, we learned she was not a medical student at all; she was an undergraduate student, unaware of the risks in what she was doing. 

Voluntourism – where volunteers pay large amounts of money to go abroad for a few weeks, or even several weeks, to engage in a short-term activity that will give them a sense of helping people, animals or the environment – is a growing industry. I look at most of it with great skepticism in terms of actually helping anyone, because it’s focused on the wants of the volunteer – that feel-good, often highly photogenic experience – not the critical local needs of local people or the environment, and there’s little screening of volunteers – most everyone is taken, so long as they can pay. What these foreigners bring through these voluntourism programs is often not skills, experience or capabilities that cannot be found locally – it’s money.

The End Humanitarian Douchery campaign takes a much stronger stand against voluntourism in any form than I do, drawing attention to the negative consequences such can have for local communities in particular. The campaign organizers offer tips on “how to find a program that will have a truly POSITIVE impact on the host community.” Likewise, ‘Looks good on your CV’: The sociology of voluntourism recruitment in higher education, an academic paper by Colleen McGloin of the University of Wollongong, Australia and Nichole Georgeou, of Australian Catholic University, says that “voluntourism reinforces the dominant paradigm that the poor of developing countries require the help of affluent westerners to induce development. And this article is advice from someone who paid to volunteer abroad – and realized she shouldn’t be. All are worth reading, no matter where you stand on the issue of voluntourism or volunteering abroad.

I do think there are some effective short-term pay-to-volunteer abroad programs, among them Bpeace and Humanist Service Corps. But both of these programs are driven by what local people want, and they do NOT take just any volunteer that can pay.

This is my reality check regarding volunteering abroad, which reviews all the different types of programs. It links to many articles that discuss the dangers of voluntourism programs to local people, and to volunteers themselves, and to quality advice on how to make a real difference abroad.

July 17, 2017 updateCharities and voluntourism fuelling ‘orphanage crisis’ in Haiti, says NGO. At least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.

Also see:


The harm of orphanage voluntourism (& wildlife voluntourism as well)

You see the posts on the subreddit regarding volunteerism, on Craigslist, on Quora, on LinkedIn groups, etc.:

Come provide care, love and attention to orphans! Help provide daily care to these orphans, help prepare meals, help watch over them, help with homework, participate in playtime activities, and be a child’s best friend in Africa… You’ll also be the shining light for the children and bring about a fresh and positive energy in the orphanage. You’ll also play the role of a friend and mentor to the children, turning them into confident individuals capable of believing in themselves. The love and attention that these children get from volunteers will uplift their spirits and put a smile on their faces.

Those are all actual statements combined from two different sites that sell volunteer trips to help orphans.

Think about it: these organizations are claiming that foreigners, who may or may not be appropriate to be around children, who may or may not have any experience working with children, who may not even speak the local language, should come interact with orphans, and that an ever-changing group of foreign volunteers, coming in for a few days or weeks at a time, can somehow transform the lives of vulnerable children. Or wildlife. The only thing those foreign volunteers need is the ability to pay all of their transportation, accommodation costs, and program fees to the trip organizer. No criminal background check, no verifiable, needed skills – just money and will.

There are so many Westerners ready to pay big bucks for these feel-good experiences and all the selfies they can take with third world children that many NGOs have popped up with fake orphanages: the children have parents, but the parents are given small fees by the NGOs for their kids to pretend to be orphans for foreigners.

Friends-International, with the backing of UNICEF, has launched this campaign to end what is known as orphanage tourism. This is from their web site:

Voluntourism can be a program that invites tourists (for a specific fee, or through an NGO directly recruiting), to volunteer at an organization. In most cases, these organizations do not require candidates to have relevant qualifications or previous work experience in social work or childcare. At worst, some organizations do not require or conduct proper background checks of volunteers before placing them in direct contact with children.

And then there is this incendiary report by South African and British academics that focuses on “orphan tourism” in southern Africa and reveals just how destructive these programs can be to local people, especially children. From the report:

The term ‘AIDS orphan tourism’, describes tourist activities consisting of short-term travel to facilities, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, that involve volunteering as caregivers for ‘AIDS orphans’. Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings… Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings. AIDS orphan tourism has become a niche market, contributing to the growth of the tourism industry…

As in other countries undergoing social or other changes, non-family residential group care (orphanages) in southern Africa has expanded, perversely driven by the availability of funds for such facilities, and the glamour that media personalities have brought to setting them up. However, many orphanages are not registered with welfare authorities as required by law, and most face funding uncertainties and high staff turnover, making them unstable rather than secure environments for children. Moreover, children taken in by orphanages are usually from desperately poor families rather than orphans – the case of David Banda in Malawi is a case in point.

There is also this May 16, 2016 report from The Guardian that volunteers from the west are fueling the growth of orphanages in Uganda. Voluntourism has been linked to damaging local economies and commodifying vulnerable children. It also can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the so-called “third world”, while also promoting neo-colonialistic attitudes. There’s also this blog from a person who paid to volunteer in an orphanage, and realized just how unethical it was.

A legitimate NGO serving orphans would never solicit come-one-come-all-as-long-as-you-can-pay volunteers via a general web site like Quora. Rather, they would have a proper, detailed Terms of Reference posted to credible humanitarian recruitment sites, like ReliefWeb or DevelopEx. That post for volunteers would detail the education and experience the volunteer would need to have and details on how the volunteers’ credibility would be investigated. And for legitimate programs, not every applicant would be accepted just because they’ve got the money to pay to the program organizer; in fact, many applicants would be turned away because they lack the necessary skills.

In short: unless a program overseas is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with children, certifications, references and criminal background checks, has a web site that details how its programs are evaluated to show impact of their programs, and has endorsements by well-known international organizations,  stay away from the program. And don’t be Savior Barbie.

As for supposed conservation volunteering in another country: why would legitimate wildlife sanctuaries allow untrained foreigners to work directly with wild(ish) animals for a few weeks? No credible zoo in the USA would ever do that. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee doesn’t let volunteers interact with the elephants! Before you rush off to an animal sanctuary in a foreign country, do a tremendous amount of research to make sure this is truly a sanctuary, not a place that goes out and captures baby animals so that tourists will pay to care for them and have photos with them.

Update: a voluntourism / orphan tourism company is trying to fight back via Reddit.

July 17, 2017 update: Charities and voluntourism fuelling ‘orphanage crisis’ in Haiti, says NGO. At least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.

Also see:

UNESCO World Heritage Volunteers 2017 projects

World Heritage Volunteers (WHV) is a program by UNESCO, a United Nations agency, that helps create opportunities for young people to travel internationally or within their own countries and help preserve and support World Heritage sites. The 2017 campaign has been announced, with 51 youth action projects planned for 50 World Heritage properties from May through November 2017, in partnership with 46 organizations in 32 countries.

“From the Vajrayogini temples of Kathmandu Valley in Nepal to the 16th-Century Monasteries on the Slopes of Popocatepetl in Mexico, from the parks and gardens of Classical Weimar in Germany to the vertiginous peaks of Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda, the local and international volunteers of the WHV 2017 will be involved in projects held at some of the most outstanding places in the world.”  The projects are in Africa, Asia, Pacific Island countries, Arab states, Latin America and Europe.

If you want to get involved in a WHV project, take a look at the 2017 project profiles here and contact directly the project organizer, who should get back to you with information on next steps. The project organizer’s contacts are in the project profiles.

It doesn’t say it anywhere that I can find on the WHV web site, but volunteers are responsible for paying and arranging all of their own international and in-country travel, for paying for their accommodations in-country, paying for all food and other in-country expenses, paying for their own insurance, etc. These are entirely volunteer positions, and no expenses are reimbursed and no stipends are paid. Some countries, like the USA, may offer tax deductions for international volunteering.

The World Heritage Volunteers Initiative is led by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) in collaboration with the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service (CCIVS), European Heritage Volunteers (as a branch of Open Houses) and Better World.

Also see:

Volunteering Abroad / Internationally

Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip

Promises & Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering

Dr. Judith Lasker, a professor at Lehigh University, published Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering” in January 2016. I have not read it. According to The New York Times review of the book, Dr. Lasker presents data from a few hundred programs that coordinate mostly short-term assignments (lasting weeks rather than months), gleaned from several surveys, dozens of interviews and some brief trips of her own. She did not look at large organizations like Doctors Without Borders , which are organized differently and generally do not use unpaid volunteers or, if they do, require much longer commitments for assignments.

“There is little evidence that short-term volunteer trips produce the kinds of transformational changes that are often promised,” Dr. Lasker finds. Of course, not all short-term volunteering is the same, but Dr. Lasker says the criticisms must be taken seriously, and that the most frequently published critiques have appeared in medical journals, which address the ethical problem of allowing medical students to work far beyond their training in communities with few resources. I would love to see some of these academic articles!

Sadly, few of these programs have been evaluated in terms of their impact on the communities where they serve. While the impact of surgical programs can be obvious and dramatic, efforts at screening for disease and disease prevention are often far less so. A representative of one program memorably told Dr. Lasker that they “just know” their work makes a difference, while a sizable minority of programs attempt no formal analysis of their achievements. Lasker asked for such and was in for a shock: “I did not expect how often the evaluation question seems to take people by surprise.” According to the Times, more than one of Dr. Lasker’s sources mused that the most beneficial aspect of the volunteer effort might be the cash infused into a community from the fees volunteers usually pay.

In addition, this short-term volunteering can lead to LESS understanding by volunteers of poverty. In an interview about the book, she notes that some participants come back with what she calls “bad learning,” and saying: “Poor people are so happy; they smiled, and sang and danced, and they don’t mind being poor”, stereotypes about poverty “based on spending a week where you don’t understand the language and where you only talk to people through translators.” (Also see: Extreme poverty is not beautiful)

“The developing world has become a playground for the redemption of privileged souls looking to atone for global injustices by escaping the vacuity of modernity and globalization.”

Dr. Lasker says, “Ultimately, my goal is not to advocate for all volunteering or to call for its dismantling. Rather, I hope to contribute to making it more effective and valuable to all concerned.” I feel exactly the same when I write about such.

Also see this story about lessons from the book Dr. Lasker teachers in one of her classes. And this blog by Dr. Lasker, “Orphanage visits–are they ever okay?”

And also see my own blogs on similar subjects:

humanitarian stories & photos – use with caution

whitesaviorbarbieIf you are going abroad, particularly to developing countries, even just for vacation rather than a humanitarian mission, be really careful and respectful in what you write for the public about your travels, including your use of social media – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. -, and what photos you take and post. Think about a post or photo carefully before you publish: is it accurate? Is it enlightening? Could it be seen as patronizing? What would the people I’m talking about say if they read what I said/saw my photos? Would it be acceptable for a stranger to talk about your community, and share photos of your children, on their blog in the way you are about to?

Earlier this month, National Public Radio did a story about how Zambians, other Africans and aid workers are using social media to show factual errors and condescending remarks in a memoir by British actress Louise Linton about her gap year. The hashtag being used is #LintonLies.

An excerpt from Linton’s book:

I still sometimes feel out of place. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola.

Really? THAT moment was that child’s GREATEST JOY?! And that is the kind of circumstance that makes you feel not out of place? She also talks in her memoir about child soldiers in Zambia – something that is not actually an issue in Zambia. Throughout her book, she confuses Zambia with Congo and Rwanda. The Zambian embassy in London has even called her out.

And then there’s actress Debra Messing, who seems similarly confused about Africa being a country, and posted photos online recently that gave people the impression that her message was more about “look where I am!” than the people she was supposed to be there FOR on behalf of two NGOs, as dissected by a commentator at Jezebel.

It all looks like ‘White Savior Barbie’ come to life – White Savior Barbie is an Instagram account that hilariously parodies volunteer selfies in developing countries, as highlighted in this article on the Huffington Post. There’s also an article in the satirical magazine The Onion that mocks voluntourism , joking that a 6-day visit to a rural African village can “completely change a woman’s facebook profile picture.”

I actually have a little bit of sympathy for Messing. I know that they had good intentions. And we’ve all done things out of ignorance that we later, often quickly, regret. We all make cultural missteps. We all make communications missteps. And aid workers can get quite carried away in an ongoing and very smug game of more-in-tune-with-people-and-not-acting-privileged-than-thou when they mock volunteer humanitarians and others, and that can be just as bad as the missteps they mock. I’ve been called out a few times for things I’ve written my blogs from developing countries – sometimes I haven’t agreed with those criticisms, sometimes I have. But I hope I’ve never come from a place of “look at me going to save all these poor people!”

I also hope these missteps don’t stop people from sharing their adventures online, including photos:

UNICEF recognizes the enormous power of visual imagery such as this to engage, inform and inspire audiences – and to advocate for children’s rights. Photographs or film footage that depict real life situations of children, and UNICEF programmes supporting supporting them, are one of the most effective ways to communicate these issues. — UNICEF Guidelines: Protecting children’s rights in corporate partner image use, viewed online in July 2016. More UNICEF photo guidelines here

I learn so much reading various posts on social media from people working in developing countries. It’s brave to put yourself and your thoughts and opinions out there, for public consumption. But be ready to revisit what you’ve said and thought online when it comes under public criticism.

And aid agencies, PLEASE train your workers, including volunteers and celebrity representatives, on how to use social media – and what not to do – before they start their work abroad or go on a field visit.

Check out this code of conduct resource from Child Rights International Network regarding taking photos of children in developing countries (really, anywhere).

Update October 21, 2016:  “a hot mess” of “neo-colonialism, racism, hypocrisy and privilege.” A Christian ministry feels the backlash of a very ill-thought video of their impressions of Uganda. Another story about the video from NPR’s Goats & Soda.

Update May 10, 2017: A photo of a young girl being raped, used by the magazine LensCulture to promote a for-profit competition by Magnum, a prestigious photo agency, violated UNICEF’s ethical guidelines on reporting on children by showing the victim’s face, which makes her identifiable, and lacked any explanation regarding the enslavement and abuse of the girl. The incident also brought attention to a broader issue in photojournalism: how the Western media depicts — and often demeans — young women and girls in poor countries. More about the incident here (the photo is NOT shown on this page).

Also see:

Isn’t my good heart & desire enough to help abroad?

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersAn email below that I got recently, which I’ve edited here for brevity and to protect everyone’s identity:

My daughter is 16, and she has saved her money to travel and volunteer.  She is partial to working with animals/conservation and/or children.  We have looked at a ridiculous number of programs, but we haven’t decided on any particular one.  She hasn’t traveled alone before, and she is sheltered, but she is completely consumed by the idea of traveling and volunteering.  I have discussed various tricky situations that she might encounter, but I don’t want to scare her away from an opportunity to learn and grow.  So many programs seem so helpful on the surface – like volunteering at orphanages or helping the elephants in Thailand – but there really can be a” dark underbelly” to many of these programs. I am just curious if you know of any reputable organizations that offer travel/volunteer trips for teens (even the sheltered ones). One program says its an elephant camp but it seems more like a theme park than a sanctuary. What advice would you give to a 16-year-old girl who wants to travel and “help and do something important”?  We are looking into local volunteer opportunities as well – she has volunteered at a local humane society, a non-profit movie theater, and done yard work/clean-up for a local YMCA camp.

Here’s what I wrote in response (also edited for my blog):

I’m going to be blunt, even harsh, and I am probably going to hurt your daughter’s feelings:

There are no reputable organizations serving children or animals abroad that need a 16-year-old from the USA. None. The programs she finds that say she will be able to help animals or children are going to be just what you said: “more like a theme park than a sanctuary.” Legitimate organizations serving children or animals in developing countries do not need 16 year olds – legitimate organizations serving children need certified and experienced teachers, school administrators, child psychologists, child nutritionists, etc., that speak the local language. Legitimate organizations serving animals need people with degrees and experience in wildlife biology and environments.

Many of pay-to-volunteer programs that say they help animals, such as elephants, capture animals specifically so they can make money from Westerners willing to pay big bucks for their feel good experience (and photos with the elephants they are “helping”.)

I’m assuming you’ve seen this: Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad / Internationally? This web page has the only pay-to-volunteer programs I’m willing to endorse.

If your daughter isn’t willing to use the next 6-10 years volunteering and working locally to get the experience she needs to work and volunteer abroad, and studying at least one other language in that time, then I recommend she forget trying to volunteer abroad and, instead, simply travel abroad and see some lovely sights, meet local people, maybe take some language classes, etc. But forget trying to help people while she’s traveling. Legitimate orphanages will NOT let her visit – just as in the USA, a foster home would never allow people to “come see the orphans”, this is the same policy for legitimate orphanages abroad. Sanctuaries that truly care about animals won’t let her interact with the animals either – while not in a developing country, the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is a great example of this – people can volunteer on the site, but they are kept away from the elephants! That’s as it should be.

So, with all that said, if I were in your daughter’s place, what would *I* do, right now? These are all things I didn’t do, but wish I had, adapted somewhat for your daughter:

  • I would create a local project for a cause or community I believed in. I would learn just what it takes to create something that helps others, recruit people to help with it, lead it, overcome challenges, adapt plans, etc. And successful completion of a project would look great on my applications for university – and, eventually, the PeaceCorps – some day. I wrote this page of leadership volunteer project suggestions for Girl Scouts looking for ideas for their Gold Awards, but almost of any of them could be undertaken by anyone. Lots are animal-related, because, when I was young, that’s what I cared about (and still do).
  • I would do everything I could to learn a second language. I half-heartedly took Spanish classes in high school. I didn’t seriously try to learn Spanish until I was 35. If I’d really applied myself earlier – or taken French instead – I would be oh-so-much farther in my career now – I could have started this path so much earlier and there would be a massive amount of jobs I would now be qualified for that I’m not now.
  • I would have tried to do more locally what I dreamed of doing internationally. Your daughter has the Internet – she can use VolunteerMatch or Guidestar to find most of the nonprofits in your area. Forget whether or not they are looking for volunteers – look at the mission of these organizations. I would look for organizations that do the kind of work locally I want to do internationally, look at their web sites thoroughly, and then call or visit each – me, not my Mom – and ask if I could volunteer, and I would have an idea of what I wanted to do as a volunteer. So, if I wanted to help children, I would look for programs that mentor or tutor young people, and if I wasn’t old enough to be a mentor or tutor myself, I’d volunteer in the office just to see how things worked. Right here where I live now, in a small town in Oregon, there is a group, Adelante Mujeres, that is doing work locally that is exactly the same kind of work done by the United Nations overseas. If I wanted to help animals, I’d contact humane societies and animal rescue groups – the ideas I have about helping animals on that aforementioned “gold award” page represent all of the things I now wish I’d try to do when I was a teen to help animals.
  • I would research the three AmeriCorps programs – AmeriCorps State and National, AmeriCorps NCCC, and AmeriCorps VISTA – and I’d orientate myself into getting into one of them eventually, maybe even delaying college for a year to do one of the programs. NCCC takes people as young as 18 for their environmental projects – but you need to apply months in advance. There’s also this AmeriCorps summer program, which also accepts 18 year olds. Doing these programs greatly prepares you for eventually joining PeaceCorps, VSO, etc.

So, that’s my advice. If your daughter would like to talk further, she’s welcomed to email me.

A few things I didn’t write:

  • I’m a researcher and trainer regarding volunteer engagement. I’m also a humanitarian aid worker. Those two fields often clash when I get inquiries like this and, when they do, I almost always defer to the latter. For me, volunteering internationally should ALWAYS be about what local people and environments need and want, and that’s expertise from abroad, not young inexperienced people with a good heart. Hence why I can sound so harsh on this subject.
  • I have to admit I loathe emails from parents looking for volunteering opportunities for their children if those children are 16 or over. If your child wants to volunteer, without a parent, entirely on his or her own, that child should be able to write me directly and ask for advice him or herself. I’ve even had parents writing me for their children that are in their 20s, desperately needing community service hours for a drunk driving conviction. If your child can’t write me him or herself, he or she isn’t ready to volunteer without you right there onsite as well.
  • I’m a meanie.
  • I really do hope she takes my advice.

What got me into trouble with this young idealist was this web page of mine: transire benefaciendo: “to travel along while doing good”.

Also see:

In defense of skills over passion

I say this regularly on various online groups, and I’ll say it again here: your desire to help others, or your desire to travel, or your ambition, are not enough to make a difference in the lives of the poor and vulnerable in other countries.

In addition, people do not get to be stock brokers, doctors, architects or lawyers just because they want to; for most professions, you have to also work over many years to acquire the skills and expertise needed. Why would working in international development?

And don’t people in developing countries deserve people with skills and expertise, not just people with a big heart?

I’m not disparaging people with big hearts – but I believe that it’s much more beneficial and economical to local communities in poor countries to hire local people to serve food, build houses, educate young people, etc., than to use resources to bring in an outside volunteers to do these tasks. I believe the priority for sending volunteers to developing countries should be to fill gaps in local skills and experience, not to give the volunteer an outlet for his or her desire to help or the donor country good PR – that doesn’t mean I think all volunteering by unskilled people should be banned, but it does mean that that such volunteering shouldn’t be the priority in helping people in the developing world.

So, on that note, I really liked this blog by Marianne Elliott, Why Your Passion Is Not Enough:

My point is that passion, perseverance and innovation are sometimes highlighted at the expense of professionalism… much more than passion is needed in order to make a positive difference in the world… Just as passionate persistence without professional skills won’t get you a part in The Hobbit, good intentions without professional skill won’t result in doing the good you intend.

Also see:

The realities of voluntourism: use with caution

Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad

Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters.

How to Make a Difference Internationally/Globally/in Another Country Without Going Abroad

Ideas for Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip.

How to Get a Job with the United Nations or Other International Humanitarian or Development Organization

transire benefaciendo: “to travel along while doing good.”

Motorcycle (scooter) ride for Cambodia!

My personal motto is transire benefaciendo, or, “to travel along while doing good.” A lot of people want to combine a trip abroad with volunteering or some kind philanthropy. Here’s my advice on how to do good while abroad (including by motorcycle). And here’s what that kind of DIY volunteer-and-do-good trip can look like:

A good friend of mine, Dave Guezuraga, who has traveled most of the world by motorcycle (and stayed at our house and been subjected to many games of corn hole), is taking a break from his travels-for-fun to put together a group ride in Cambonia to raise money through United World Schools (UWS) for its efforts to provide schools in inaccessible, underprivileged and post conflict regions, including in Cambodia:

It’s a motorcycle trip across Cambodia that anyone can participate in, regardless of experience, with the aim of having a bit of fun and helping a local charity supporting Cambodian Children. For 2012 the ride is a scouting run to check out roads and routes, therefore numbers are limited… In 2013 it will be open to absolutely anyone who can get there – so start saving!

In a nutshell… Take 2 weeks off work, and approximately $2000-$3000 (including flights to/from Europe, Australia or America)

Get yourself to the kick off town in Cambodia by the morning of Monday the 30th of January 2012.

Make friends with the other riders you find in the town.

Buy a little motorbike at a good price ($300-$500), and try to get your new friends to help you prepare it for a 1500km trip by the end of that day.

then repeat this…

Get together for dinner, sample the local Angkor beer and agree on a destination for the next day.

Next morning, ride to to the destination while having maximum fun… Until Thursday the 9th of February 2012… On Friday the 10th, donate the bike, your medical kit, and whatever other money you have raised for charity.

Say goodbye to your new friends, and make your way back to wherever you came from.

And then do it again (or not) in 2013. Participants on either/both trips must buy a Honda Dream 125cc Motorcycle (4 Speed, Automatic Clutch) in-country, and then auction the bike off at the end of the ride (the auctions of the bikes are to raise money for charity). And, of course, participants will be encouraged to blog about their experience, tell friends, etc., and encourage donations to UWS.

Full details at the Ride for Cambodia web site. And feel free to write Dave directly through the web site if you have questions – and tell him Jayne sent ya!

Also see my advice on how to do good while abroad (including by motorcycle).

Setting criteria for quality volunteering abroad programs

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and Planeterra, a non-profit foundation dedicated to sustainable community development and environmental conservation through travel, are collaborating to develop a set of criteria that will help international voluntourism providers plan and manage their programs in a responsible and sustainable manner.

The research project will incorporate a global survey program to be undertaken in May 2011 and stakeholder meeting, which will be held Sept. 19-21 during the upcoming Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference organized by TIES in Hilton Head Island, SC. TIES will produce the final draft for expert committee review and publication in early 2012.

If your organization places volunteers in developing countries, you should contact the project organizers immediately and get involved in this initiative. If you have ever served in such a program, you should contact this initiative as well. Let your voice be heard!

Also see:

  • A listing of the more-than-30 member organizations of the International Volunteers Program Association (IVPA) that is a good place to find reputable volunteer-for-a-fee programs.
  • For people in the United Kingdom, there’s the Year Out Group, an association of gap-year-abroad organizations that meet certain standards in order to be a member. The Year Out Group does not however organize or arrange year out programs, but it’s a good place to find reputable programs.
  • Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad: a detailed resource for those who dream of volunteering abroad. Provides a great deal of detail on what you need to do to make a great candidate for the PeaceCorps, VSO, UN Volunteers, etc.
  • The realities of voluntourism: use with caution: Voluntourism is really awful and really good. I’m totally against it and I support it. Confused yet? This opinion piece is my attempt to explain why voluntourism sometimes works and why, very often, it’s dreadful.
  • Vetting Organizations in Other Countries, for those who are negotiating directly with an organization in another country.
  • Hosting International Volunteers: More and more local organizations in developing countries are turning to local expertise, rather than international volunteers, to support their efforts. However, the need for international volunteers remains, and will for many, many years to come. This resource provides tips for local organization in a developing countries interested in gaining to international volunteers.
  • transire benefaciendo: “to travel along while doing good.” Advice for those wanting to make their travel more than sight-seeing and shopping.

voluntourism: use with caution

An incendiary report by South African and British academics focuses on “orphan tourism” in southern Africa and reveals just how destructive these short-term volunteering programs can be to local people, especially children.

It works like this: Western tourists pay an organization to travel for a few weeks, even several weeks, to a poor but exotic place where foreign volunteers are supposedly needed to help countless abandoned children, giving love and support to desperate young children. Providing an emotional connection with needy young children for a few weeks is at the core of what these voluntourists want to experience.

This report brings up many of the things I do in my own caution about volunteering abroad, such as how these programs can take away local jobs. But in addition, as this report notes:

There are serious concerns about the impacts of short-term caregivers on the emotional and psychological health of very young children in residential care facilities. The formation and dissolution of attachment bonds with successive volunteers is likely to be especially damaging to young children. Unstable attachments and losses experienced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, and puts them at greatly increased risk for psychosocial problems that could affect their long-term well-being.

VSO UK said a few years ago that young people are often better off backpacking in developing countries, traveling and getting to know local people simply as paying tourists, rather than paying for most “voluntourism” experiences. VSO’s criticisms of paying-to-volunteer companies are absolutely right on:

a lot of young people are exploited by gap-year volunteer charities, being told that they are going to help people when, in reality, the volunteers are just making money for the company by paying for their feel-good experience (and these volunteers could have had just as meaningful experience had they simply traveled in the country as tourists.

A lot of pay-to-volunteer companies cater to the needs of the voluntourist rather than the local communities they claim volunteers will support. The voluntourist gets a feel good experience, but the local people don’t really benefit in any tangible way. These companies can contribute to that old-time colonialist thinking: we’re from the West, and we’re here to help you poor, pathetic people. That’s not a way of thinking that should be cultivated. And I get anywhere from annoyed to enraged by the attitude by many in the west: I’m a good person with a big heart and therefore I should be sent to a poor country, housed and fed, and allowed to cuddle orphaned babies and hug disaster survivors.

In addition, some voluntourists — people who pay for a feel-good experience — are not properly trained, supervised or supported, and are put in dangerous situations and are permanently injured or even killed in accidents that were easily preventable. For instance, a British student was electrocuted while working as a conservation volunteer in Fiji and a panda cub bit off part of the thumb of an American volunteer who was feeding the animal at a reserve in southwest China.

But with all that said, I also believe that not all of the pay-to-volunteer companies out there are misguided or exploitative. There are companies that employ local people in most paid roles with the company, that put the volunteers in positions where the volunteers are learning from local people as much, if not more, than they are teaching/leading/working, that keep volunteers as safe as any tourist to the country can be, and that give volunteers a great (nothing short of great for that amount of money), immersive experience. There are companies that open the eyes of Westerners about the realities of developing countries and what it really takes to transform communities, with volunteers knowing up front that their few days or weeks aren’t going to make any difference in the lives of local people in the long-run, and learning that its their post-trip actions and new knowledge that could make a difference for those local people in the long-run.

Here are directories of short-term volunteering organizations, online and in print, that can help you identify credible programs:

I strongly recommend the book How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, by Joseph Collins, Stefano DeZerega, and Zehara Heckscher. It will give you details about what international volunteering really entails, why some organizations require that international volunteers pay, suggestions on how to raise funds for such, and an excellent overview of your options for fee-based overseas volunteering. But best of all, it provides tips and worksheets that can make your volunteering have real impact for the local people, and benefits for you long after the experience is over.

Here’s THREE endorsements of pay-to-volunteer programs that I will make, but only because I know the people heading these organizations, I know they don’t take just anyone (candidates must have some basic skills), and I know what difference these organizations make for local people (not just how warm and fuzzy they make the participating volunteers feel):

World Computer Exchange

      (WCE). Volunteers travel in teams of seven and assist local WCE partner organizations that have received WCE computers. Volunteers assist with troubleshooting, training and technical support. To be eligible, volunteers must be 21 years of age, have some prior tech skills, and a willingness to participate in technology-related tasks and education. For certain trips there are some language requirements. Trip participants also visit local families and enjoy a variety of opportunities to experience the local culture. Also, accepted volunteers must pay the costs for their trip (flight, etc.).

Unite For Sight and its partner eye clinics and communities work to create eye disease-free communities. “While helping the community, volunteers are in a position to witness and draw their own conclusions about the failures and inequities of global health systems. It broadens their view of what works, and what role they can have to insure a health system that works for everyone…” This program was featured on CNN International. Volunteers, both skilled and unskilled, are 18 years and older, and there is no upper age limit. It is obligatory for accepted volunteers to purchase insurance coverage through Unite for Sight’s recommended provider, and volunteers are responsible for all travel arrangements, visa vaccine requirements, lodging, airfare, food, and any additional expenses.

Global Xchange, a program of VSO UK, proclaims proudly, “Looking for a holiday? Look somewhere else.” It’s made up of two programs: Youth Xchange, which gives 18-25 year olds from the United Kingdom the chance to spend six months making a real difference to the lives of disadvantaged people; and Community Xchange, a six-week programme for community workers and practitioners to learn how to help young people become active global citizens, and how to get different cultures interacting with each other and exchanging ideas.

If you have volunteered overseas and paid a fee for the experience, I strongly urge you to offer comments about that company on Yelp or your own blog. Some of the most frequently asked questions on online groups, such as YahooAnswers or The Thorn Tree, are regarding experiences with fee-based volunteering abroad programs. People ask, “Has anyone heard of such-and-such organization, and is it a good idea to use them to go to Africa to volunteer?” You could help others make the right choices by reviewing the company that sent you abroad, on Yelp or any other customer review site.

If you want to volunteer abroad on a short-term gig, and are wondering how you are going to pay the two or three thousand dollars to make it happen (your payment covers transportation in the country, housing, training, staff supervision and support, work permits from the government, and security), see: Funding Your Volunteering Abroad Trip. And buyer beware: ask the tough questions of the company, and ask to speak with at least two people who have volunteered abroad with the company. How the company reacts to your questions will speak volumes about the quality of the company.

If you want to volunteer long-term (six months – two years) in a program that does NOT require you to pay (PeaceCorps, VSO, UNV, etc.), and you are highly-skilled (you speak another language in addition to English, you are a successful professional or business owner who can train others in some areas of your expertise, you have volunteered or worked extensively locally, in your own community, in capacity-building activities, etc.), see this resource. If you aren’t highly-skilled but want to engage in activities over the next few years that will make you a more viable candidate for long-term volunteering programs, this same resource will also help you.

July 17, 2017 updateCharities and voluntourism fuelling ‘orphanage crisis’ in Haiti, says NGO. At least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.