This publication – Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good – is due out in January and promises to be an important read, drawing on the combined expertise of two dozen leading voices advocating for travel that makes a difference. It’s for travellers,volunteers, volunteer sending and receiving organisations and academics. The list of contributors is impressive – people who have a wealth of knowledge about volunteer travel. Register for a copy on publication here
Here is Sallie’s contribution –
While You Act: Make Bullied Communities and Disappointed Volunteers Things of the Past
While many have celebrated the merging of community service with tourism, others are highly critical and correctly so. Three particular issues need close investigation:
(1) Where does the money go?
(2) Do the negative impacts outweigh the positives for local communities?
(3) How much do the local communities know?
In search of clarity about these issues and more, potential volunteers and fundraising motivators need to ask questions. But they need to be the right questions!
Where Does the Money Go?
Fact: Volunteer programs and charity causes cost money. But working out whether everyone is being rewarded fairly is not easy! Some organizations peddle smoke-and-mirrors volunteer placements and fundraising challenges, explaining in vague terms about how funds received are turned toward project development, but without disclosing the full details. They also make it difficult and uncomfortable for participants to ask pointed questions. Well-intentioned generosity is often informed that money is directed into the community, only to discover that 75% of what gets paid remained with the sending organization.
The most important information to gather is: WHERE is the money spent?
Do the Negative Impacts Outweigh the Positives for Local Communities?
For host communities, there are a number of issues that need to be considered in order to minimize negative impacts.
One common occurrence is exploitation by service providers of vulnerable communities eager for assistance. All too often, a project receiving volunteers or financial assistance has little say about the volume or experience of volunteers placed with them, or the quantity and nature of funds raised. Many do not know anything about donations (time or money) until the day it arrives.
For example, a volunteer’s skills must be matched to community need. For volunteers, these may be life skills, not professional qualifications, but they should be appropriate. I have serious doubts about projects that require no skill, but only labour. Most countries that attract volunteers have high unemployment rates, so cheap labour is not needed.
The most important question to ask yourself about what a perfect match: Do I have the skills to do the work? This is particularly important when considering volunteering in orphanages.
How Much Do the Local Communities Know?
The Cape Town Declaration states that tourism in general should “actively involve the local community in planning and decision-making, and provide capacity-building to make this a reality.” This approach should also be applied to volunteering and fundraising drives, as the most effective projects originate in the local community, NOT with international organizations!
If programs do not actively involve local communities from the very start, there is little chance that the programs will be meaningful for the communities. Instead it’s simply voyeurism – one of the most negative aspects of “poverty tourism” – using poverty to attract tourists and philanthropy, rather than using tourism to fight poverty.
The important questions to ask are:
When volunteering: What will the local projects know about me before I arrive?
Before accepting you, if the organization with which you are coordinating does not want to know about you, your skills, experience or motivations, then seriously reconsider.
When donating: How will my money help?
If the organization is unable to explain exactly where and how your donation will be distributed, what the operating and administration costs are, and what local impact your funds will have, look for another scheme.
Who decides what work I or my money will be doing and how do they decide?
A responsible organization will have consulted with local projects and learned about their goals and needs, as well as how people or financial support can help. They will have documented all needs and review them regularly. These reports will not all be good news – they should be critical assessments, not marketing documents! The best organizations will share such information freely and at all times, including long before travel or wire transfers are required. They will be able to demonstrate regular updates to that information.
If no such documentation is available, it is likely that no such process has been undertaken.
Always remember that despite the potential negative impacts, a carefully placed financial contribution or well-prepared, screened, skilled volunteer can make a positive impact. Well-run efforts can absolutely develop a level of social interaction and understanding that is profound. The whole process can give a real face to poverty and vulnerability, and shift consciousness toward the understanding of a shared humanity. It can and does lead to an understanding of our interconnectedness as people.