When volunteers need to beware

HELP: A volunteer helps with the big cats at a Namibian cheetah preserve.
HELP: A volunteer helps with the big cats at a Namibian cheetah preserve.

Tourists wanting to grow their humanity, rather than their waistlines, are behind the boom in short-term volunteering holidays, also known as voluntourism or cultural exchanges.

Months spent helping local communities in an exotic location, is hardly new, as many veteran non-governmental organisation (NGO) volunteers will tell you.

Even further back, New Zealand's first missionaries probably enjoyed the sights around the Bay of Islands during their "cultural exchanges" as well, though you'd hope 21st century volunteer efforts don't extend to trading muskets or influenza.

But a recent critique of kitset short-term volunteer tourist packages (separate to legitimate teaching positions or farm dossing) described them as a form of modern day colonialism.

According to Volunteer Service Overseas' UK head, "gap year" students balancing youthful hedonism with handing out sports gear at orphanages could end up doing more harm than good.

Efforts at increasing education and transferring skills in poor countries can have the best intentions, but have had mixed results.

Controversies involving projects that take in tourist volunteers include corruption cases where money raised for school renovations is misspent.

A Unesco report found that privately run orphanages in Cambodia and Ghana were using children with living parents and "commoditising" them, in line with the increased demand for volunteer tourist activities.

A sad case of the free market at work? If money keeps coming in to underdeveloped communities because schools and orphanages look derelict, then the incentive could be to keep it that way, or at least ensure it doesn't stop.

The scandals are not good news for the NGOs who genuinely need volunteers for projects, or for the tourists themselves, who often feel betrayed by the truth of the situation.

In the egocentric marketing of tourism, it's important to keep developing communities and children the focus, but not view them as a tourist attraction.

The voluntourism industry, where a local travel sales agent sells week-long packages with a dedicated NGO "on the ground" could argue that a drop in the bucket is still better than relaxing by the resort pool.

Youth-based travel agency Unleashed said both tourists and hosts benefit from its project in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It's run by an NGO that it said handles resources more effectively than local officials do. Part of their two-week programme fee ($1800 excluding flights), is a direct donation to the project.

From the tourist's perspective, the benefit of signing up for voluntourism projects through a New Zealand agency is the support networks on hand if things go wrong, although a couple of seasoned voluntourists told me on-hand mentors were of varying quality when problems arose.

They said using an agency is worthwhile, particularly for your first time volunteering abroad, but not foolproof.

An alternative is applying to work with NGOs and development projects directly and negotiating your own terms.

Since the boom in voluntourism, NGOs may insist on minimum stays and minimum donations, so your contribution to their community project is worth their while.

If you're thinking about expanding your horizons, rather than just staring at them from a hammock, it pays to thoroughly research the agency, project, context and country you intend to visit.

If you particularly want to volunteer in orphanages or schools, the thinkchildsafe.org website has some thought provoking tips.

Sunday Star Times