Voluntourism: more good than harm?

This article originally appeared on ABC online.

The hours are long. The work can be back breaking and heart breaking. The conditions are often tough. And on top of all that, you don't get paid. In fact, you may actually pay for the privilege. So the question is: why would anyone give up their hard earned holidays to shovel bear poo, teach English to orphans or pull ticks off scabies-ridden street dogs?

For me, and many of the volunteers I've talked to, the stock standard reason for volunteering while travelling is about giving back to the communities you're visiting. After zipping around the world a few times over the years, I'd had enough of sitting by pools sipping cocktails with those cute little umbrellas in them. I wanted to be a part of the communities I was in and help to make them better places.

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I decided to teach English, and signed up with Globalteer, a UK based charity which runs several different projects in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The village the "school" was in was a hot and sweaty half hour bicycle ride away from Siem Reap. One of the elders of the village had set up the school in his house; one side of the square concrete box was the classroom, the other was the bedroom where the family of five slept in two beds.

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There was no sewerage system and no running water. The smoke from the cooking fires filled the room in the afternoons. Chickens, birds and the odd goat would wander in and out while I was teaching. Most of the children had lice. At least a dozen of the 85 or so kids were orphans; they slept on the school desks at night.

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While it all sounds pretty sad and depressing, it was actually the opposite. The kids were incredibly happy, sweet, eager to learn and grateful for getting the chance. They had no concept of the fact they're doing it tough (by our Western standards). Even for a cynical journalist, it was inspirational being around them and so rewarding when they learned new things.

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During one of my volunteering experiences at the Wildlife Friends of Thailand rescue centre, the majority of the volunteers were gap-year students. I was surprised by their level of dedication to the animals and their ability to tough it out in exceptionally testing conditions without complaining.

Fun times scrubbing bear poo

Fun times scrubbing bear poo

The work days started at 6am and often involved shovelling some kind of poo. We also spent a great deal of time scrubbing pools, planting trees and doing endless cycles of feeding and watering the animals in hot and ridiculously humid conditions. We were constantly under attack - from the red ants on the ground, the mosquitoes in the air and the monkeys above who thought it was hilarious to try and pee on us when we walked underneath their cages.

Waiting for his next victim

Waiting for his next victim

None of this probably sounds like much fun, but it was one of the best experiences I've had. I learned a lot about animals, their behaviour and their conservation. The bond between the volunteers and the sense of community you get from living and working alongside people dedicated to something worthwhile is also something that leaves a big impression on you.

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More harm than good?

Oscar Wilde said: “It’s always with the best intentions that the worst work is done”. While my personal volunteering experiences have been incredibly positive, I have been left wondering about the downsides of voluntourism. For instance, while I have a Bachelor of English and have taught at university for over 10 years, many of the volunteers don't have any teaching qualifications at all. It seems as long as you have a half decent command of the English language, you're in.

The length of time volunteers generally spend in a community is also a concern. I witnessed many of the kids becoming attached to the volunteers, only to have them disappear the next week. A report by the Human Sciences Research Council on volunteering in Africa found that "Unstable attachments and losses experienced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, and puts them at greatly increased risk of psychosocial problems that could affect their long-term well-being."

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The report also raises concerns about negative flow on effects, saying "...there is a real danger of voluntourists crowding out local workers, especially when people are prepared to pay for the privilege to volunteer". And while the money paid is earmarked for needy projects, NGO's, despite their best intentions, still have overheads and a large part of the donations can be eaten up by administration costs.

There are very few facts and figures when it comes to measuring the impact of voluntourism. A 2008 study by Tourism Research and Marketing, an independent British consultancy, provided the first global over view of the voluntourism market. It found voluntourism was booming, and estimated that there were 1.6 million volunteer tourists a year, with the industry worth up to $2.6 billion dollars world wide. The big dollars being thrown around has led to the establishment of commercial providers, rather than not for profit organisations, becoming involved. And as with anything, where money goes, corruption often follows, particularly in third world countries.

Turning worthwhile projects into money-making ventures also brings up all sorts of ethical problems. The HSRC report cited concerns from academics, activists and volunteer organisations that "...gap-year students in the UK risked 'becoming the new colonialists', with organisations increasingly catering to the needs of volunteers rather than the needs of the communities they claim to support."

In my personal experience at the wildlife centre in Thailand, whenever a volunteer complained about the living conditions, they were told the money was spent on feeding and housing the animals, not the comfort of the volunteers. The centre also had a strict no touching policy and volunteers were reminded the creatures were wild animals, not pets. But not all projects are so conscientious. At many centres, volunteers and visitors are allowed to touch, hand feed and even sit on the animals, which can hardly be for their benefit.

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This begs the question: are flawed projects better than not doing anything at all? Like anything, knowledge, education and understanding are the key. My later volunteering experiences were ones I organised myself after I’d arrived in a place. That way, it was possible to really check out the organisation and understand its purpose in the community. I also haven’t had to pay for these experiences, which cuts out the scope for corruption. And at the end of the day, seeing the benefits of my work still makes me believe I’m doing more good than harm.