The Traveler Mag

Voluntourism: A Helping Hand

Helping Hand

There’s a new trend in the world of travel and it’s called voluntourism, and according to a recent Telegraph news piece, during 2006 more than 40,000 Britons took part. In fact, the idea is nothing new: visit a country, get to know the culture and give something back in the way of voluntary work. The difference is that the choices now available to the philanthropic traveller have never been wider.

Natalie West, 24, decided to turn to voluntary work after graduating and wanting to combine an interest in nature and conservation with a desire to travel. “After looking around at a variety of companies that ran a choice of trip, I settled on a 12-week project offered by African Conservation Experience working on a ‘big five’ game reserve in South Africa where I could see wildlife in its natural surroundings.”

Looking back, Natalie recalls a host of highlights, including witnessing the comical advances of a couple of quarrelling giraffes and capturing a kudu in a special pen on the front of a moving lorry. In between the fun there were a few  hard times, such as the 5.30am alarm calls, the freezing temperatures of the South African winter and the seemingly endless waiting around that often preceded an animal capture. But as Natalie explained: “It is really important to have the right attitude when put in such an alien and unpredictable environment. There is no point in getting upset and stressed when your open-top Land Rover gets stuck in the mud in a thunderstorm with lions sitting contentedly beside it. In that situation you just have to laugh.” Natalie added: “It was without doubt the best 12 weeks of my life and I would recommend it to anyone.”

Voluntourism can be split into two main areas: nature conservation and humanitarian work. The first covers anything from Natalie’s work with wild animals in Africa to scientific research work around the world through conservation concerns such as Earthwatch and Greenforce. Humanitarian efforts, on the other hand, includes a plethora of subjects from post-tsunami work in Sri Lanka and Thailand to teaching in India or house-building in Latin America.

Go Differently is just one of an increasing number of companies which has recognized the growing demand for voluntourism travel, particularly from travellers with only a little time to spare. Managing Director Nikki Bond explained: “While longer-term volunteering has been around for a quite a long time, we’ve recognized that there’s also been a significant growth among those with less spare time but who want to also feel that their travelling is helping to make a real difference. These are the same people who have seen how voluntourism is a great way to work alongside local people and gain a unique insight into the culture they are visiting, something that could be entirely missed if they were just passing through on a standard tourist-style trip.”

As with a number of travel companies involved in voluntourism, Nikki added that Go Differently saw a huge rise in the number of volunteers joining its trips in 2005, roughly a 150% rise over the previous 12 months. “I believe this was to some extent prompted by the reaction to the South East Asia tsunami which led a lot of people to consider volunteering overseas for the first time. As a result we were inundated with people wanting to spend their travel time helping, so we got involved with projects from clearing debris to simple building tasks and constructing children’s play areas.”

Different Travel supplies a number of voluntourism projects around the world, with managing director Adrian Yalland also commenting on the recent growth of interest in this type of travel.

“Feedback from our customers shows that voluntourism is growing in popularity because travellers are looking for a more ethical way to see     the world alongside an increasingly authentic travel experience. Therefore, the concept of travelling in a way that ensures friendships are built between travellers and locals excites a great many people – especially when the end results benefit the local community. Also, with environmental issues, third-world poverty and globalism all high on the media and political agenda, people are starting to realise that we can no longer live in isolation from the rest of the world. The planet is too small and fragile for that.”

Making a Difference
Typical of the new wave of travellers now experiencing the voluntourism trend is Andrew Gibson, 47, who recently took part in a Go Differently trip working with elephants in a sanctuary near Pattaya in Thailand.

“When I saw the chance to work with elephants in Thailand, it was perfect. As a charity they need all the financial and moral support they can get. The animals are basically rescued from a life of logging or roaming the streets of Bangkok, and the charity offers some form of normal life and rehabilitation. During my eight days in camp there were 17 elephants, the bull elephant being a tsunami victim which shows that it’s not only mankind that suffers from natural disasters.”

Paul was allocated his own elephant that was responsible for feeding, bathing and learning to ride it, plus taking visitors for rides. “It’s hot, sweaty and dirty work, but the rewards are just amazingly fantastic. The look in the elephant’s eyes when she recognizes you after just a few hours and lifts her leg to assist you in climbing aboard was just one of the highlights.”

While the amount of time Paul was able to spend with the project in Thailand was limited by work commitments, opportunities do exist for travellers who may wish to volunteer for long-term projects. The VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) is aimed at skilled volunteers seeking placements in over 40 countries of around two years at a time. The VSO’s Abigail Fulbrook explained: “The volunteers who take part in our projects aim to pass on their expertise to local people so that when they leave a project and return home, their skills remain. Volunteers can be aged between 20 and 75 years old, and we require that they have a formal qualification plus some work experience. Once a volunteer is accepted, they are provided with accommodation and a local level allowance, as well as air fares and insurance. We are actively recruiting volunteers all the time for a vast range of jobs, including small business advisors, teachers, social workers, health professionals and farmers.”

For Allan and Margaret Rickmann, both in their mid-50s, the VSO gave them the chance to work in the Gambia for two years in order, as Margaret explained, “To understand a little more about the developing world, the people, the culture and economics of poverty. Rather than just go and look, we wanted to spend long enough to understand the issues and contribute something, if we could.”

The result was that Allan, a scientist involved in medical research in the UK, became the chief medical director to the premier teaching hospital in the Gambia, while Margaret took on the role of management advisor to the board of The Gambian Organisation for the Visually Impaired.

“Our remit was to advice and train Gambians about how to undertake the tasks and jobs we were doing rather than do them ourselves. In that way the benefit would last longer,” added Allan.

Of course, being away for so long brings up its own challenges, and for Allan and Margaret, the greatest of these was missing their friends and family back in the UK. “But at the same time we learned a huge amount from our Gambian colleagues, friends and neighbours,” explained Margaret. In fact, they enjoyed their VSO experience so much they plan to repeat it next year in a different country.

Before undertaking any type of voluntourism work, there are certain questions that must be answered. Richard Oliver is the chief Executive of the Year Out Group, a not for profit organisation that was formed to promote the concept and benefits of well-structured year out programmes. He explained that the key to success is knowing what you wish to achieve and experience in the time available.  If you go with an organisation you will want to be properly supported but you also need to ensure that you are right for the placement and vice versa. For instance, if you have no experience of being with children, is a volunteer placement in a Romanian orphanage the right one for you? Similarly, perhaps you’ll find it tougher to get on in a group of people you’ve never met before if you’re most used to working on your own.

There’s also the question of the possible culture shock of suddenly arriving within a strange community, possibly with few of the services and amenities, such as hot water or electricity, which we take for granted. Add to this a language that you don’t understand, unusual food and unfamiliar cultural practices, and without any sort of support network, it’s quite understandable that an inexperienced traveller could feel out of their depth.

Then there’s the nature of the work. While the vast majority of voluntourism projects are based around work that is both enjoyable for the volunteers and beneficial to the communities, scenarios can arise where volunteers have found it difficult to cope with the challenges they’re presented with.

The challenge and the fun of volunteering is about adjusting to and flourishing in these very different circumstances but the chances of success will be greatly enhanced if they are not entirely unexpected.

Culture Shock
Take the example of Mary Askew who took on a voluntary placement with a camp for Liberian refugees near Accra in Ghana. While the work was undoubtedly worthwhile, it was also demanding and, at times, quite emotional.

“We were meant to be teaching in a school but in reality most of each day was spent dealing with requests from refugees who were hungry or sick and needed money. Often there would be queues of people outside our door who needed help. We had to make some really difficult decisions as we didn’t have the resources, time or expertise to help them all. Sometimes if we helped one refugee with a problem, say money to bury a relative, ten more with the same dilemma would turn up the next day expecting that they too would be helped. It was frustrating and upsetting, and only very occasionally rewarding.”

But even this sort of experience didn’t put Mary off the idea of voluntourism, and she is already planning on taking part in another project soon. “Next time though I will do a lot more research into the project I’m joining. I’d tell everyone thinking of volunteering to speak to someone who had previously been on the project they’re considering before they sign up and part with their cash.”

Another major consideration to bear in mind before selecting the project for you is that you understand exactly what it is you’re paying for. Fees to get involved range from a few hundred pounds for a couple of weeks away without flights included, to £2,000-£3,000 for an all-inclusive package. But are insurance, meals, accommodation and any sort of medical back-up provided? Are other charities and travel companies offering similar work in the same area charging similar prices, and if not, why not? And perhaps most importantly of all, how much of the money that you are spending goes directly to the village or community in which you’re working?

“There are scores of organisations offering this sort of voluntourism experience. Many offer very similar services but the way they operate is different,” explained Richard Oliver. “Mary Askew is spot on:        do your research; shop around; speak to returned volunteers; ask questions of the providing organisation to find out where the money goes. There will be differences between funds spent on contributing to the project and those allocated to supporting the volunteer. Only through research can the volunteer make an informed decision and select the project and the providing organisation that best suits their needs.”

Sarah Horner from travel specialist i-to-i, who offer a variety of voluntourism packages, explained: “At i-to-i we try to be as transparent as possible about how each volunteer fee is spent. We aim to make clear that this money does not make a direct contribution to the project. This is because giving large sums of money to overseas programmes can sometimes cause reliance on such donations and jeopardise the long-term future of the project.

“The service that we offer enables people to work in a safe, secure environment in a developing country – something people might find difficult to organise themselves. An enormous amount of work is involved with co-ordinating suitable projects for our volunteers and it is this service that our travellers pay for.”

Life Changing
While voluntourism is all about helping other people, it can also provide a life-changing experience for the volunteer. Take the case of Lesley Cole (57) who along with her sister Jane Grendon (64) used her quilt-making skills to help women in Mongolia learn a trade.

“We heard that a charity called the Shin Zamanl NGO Mongolian Quilt were looking for teachers to help Mongolian women use patchwork and quilting to become part of the market economy, and although it would be my first time overseas, I thought that it was something that I could help with. When we got there it was quite a culture shock. Everything was so different and made such an impact, and it was tough leaving my husband behind. The women there though were so keen to learn, and even though there was a language barrier I think we achieved so much.

“It made me aware of how privileged we are at home and now I want to help even more. As a teacher having to instruct a class with no common language, it made me aware of the importance of communication. And as a quilt maker, the patterns that they use in Mongolia are so different to anything I’d seen before, I now use them in my work.”

As for mum of five Angie Howard (36), she had never flown before fulfilling her dream of working as a volunteer with a wildlife sanctuary in South Africa, a trip she arranged through Real Gap. And while it was hard leaving her family for 16 days, it was something she now looks back on as the experience of a lifetime.

“The work ranged from mixing cement to cleaning out bones from the hyena’s enclosure and feeding milk to a baby giraffe. But from the moment I decided to go overseas, I knew that I wanted to volunteer. For me, to work with these magnificent animals instead of just seeing them from a jeep made my trip even better. Why spend money on sightseeing when you can help the conservation of these animals?”

For Paul Washer from Chichester, his chosen voluntourism project allowed him to use some of the skills he had learnt studying zoology at university to help animals in Costa Rica.

“As my university course hadn’t included any work placement opportunities, I thought that this was a good chance to go and see how my studies could make a difference in a more practical scenario.”

So Paul booked two months working as part of a voluntary turtle research project in Costa Rica studying the nesting patterns of some of the most endangered marine species, as well as helping to build an all-weather dwelling known as a rancho. The trip helped Paul to experience a foreign culture while fulfilling a desire to see the world and at the same time make a difference for the better.

“Those few weeks of labour proved arduous, but providing voluntary work that improves endangered or deprived areas, and also helps salvage parts of the world that are gradually being destroyed, engenders a huge sense of purpose and fulfillment in those that have the courage to get involved,” commented Paul.

One of the great new trends in voluntourism is whole families getting in on the act, often with the parents teaching while the children learn what life is like within another culture. Hands Up Holidays, which combines standard travel experiences with voluntary work, has been championing this sort of trip since it was formed four years ago, as founder and CEO Christopher Hill explained.

“We have been delighted at the number of bookings we’re receiving for people with young families who want to take their children on a trip that provides them with meaningful interaction with local people, to gain insights and get immersed in a culture. Popular trips in this category have been those that involve orphanage repair and renovation in South Africa, Fiji, China and Brazil, or teaching such as in Thailand and Vietnam, whereby the adults can work and the children get to play with the local children.”

So whether you’ve got two weeks or two years to spare, and no matter what you level of skill you have to offer, voluntourism has so much to offer the world traveller, from self-fulfillment and helping another community to simply providing a great way to experience the world.

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