Recorded voluntourism goes back a while. It started with a spiritual calling; missionaries and Saints were driven by their beliefs of greater purpose to venture to remote (and often very hostile) sectors of the world to feed and wash the poor (and teach them about Jesus and shit).
Fast-forward some several centuries, and the name of the game changed. It is certainly pretty en vogue right now and at least 1.6 million people a year elect to give up some of their vacation time to undertake unpaid work in a foreign country. Most travellers you meet have done some form of WWOOFing, volunteering, or general charity work in their travels.
There are many reasons why people do this:
- Some hit the road in search of that elusive sense of inner-fulfilment (it’s coming – I promise).
- …Or career experience.
- Some feel, that from a place of a righteous Western privilege, they have a responsibility to serve rather than just backpack.
- Others again just like the free bread and board… (Hey, it’s a nice bonus!)
But then you get to the burning question. As the playing field has changed – as the growth of tourism, voluntourism, and humblebrags on social media about volunteering with poor people like som modern-day prophet – there’s one question to seek an honest answer too.
Is it still worth volunteering abroad?
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Volunteering Abroad: Ok, let’s talk about this.
I want to tackle this subject because volunteering is a topic that’s important to me. I get it: ethics are important. As we’ve taken a stride into the modern-day tourism of the 21st century, we’ve started to take a closer examination about how things are done.
Let’s dive into this discussion.
A Dirty Word: Voluntourism
In some circles, voluntourism has become a dirty word. Critics question the nature and purity of these “righteous” impulses. They argue that the hidden intentions of volunteers are more about alleviating Westerners’ internal tension about their privileged position in the world rather than it is about actually helping those in need. An act of easing the “white guilt”.
Others point out that most of the volunteers are not actually skilled or qualified enough to provide any meaningful assistance and that moreover, by working for free, they are taking paid opportunities away from locals who really need the income.
Looking at the scores of graduates and gap-year kids on the road, there is definitely something a little off about some people’s attitudes to volunteering abroad. Many young backpackers, fresh off the plane, feel that some form of voluntourism, (often worked into a longer, hedonistic tour of Latin America or Southeast Asia) is something of a rite of passage.
Has volunteering abroad become just another box-to-tick? One more essential line on a resume and one more must-have accessory experience for a successful life? The question is, is it still worth volunteering abroad?
This criticism has been further galvanised by a number of high profile stories of voluntourism gone wrong. Many question how effective an English teacher who stays two weeks can ever be (indeed, did you ever learn anything from your substitute teachers) and there are disturbing tales of volunteers been sent to work on commercial farms or working in orphanages where the children are not actually orphans…
I will elaborate. In the 2010’s, a number of orphanages in Cambodia were exposed as fraudulent. You read that correctly, orphanages were committing fraud by recruiting children from poor or single-parent families and presenting them as orphans in order to cream off the fee’s (always payable in USD) from well-intended volunteers. The parents of these children are sometimes given a cut or are just assured that by being in the institution, the child will be given a great education, something which is otherwise unavailable in rural Cambodia.
If the Cap Fits…
These stories are upsetting and sickening but are they really all that shocking? Charity, like any other money-generating venture, has always been open to corruption and exploitation.
In some ways, volunteering operations are a natural breeding place for fraud, theft and exploitation as these operations, by their very nature, play on human emotions. This infiltration has been happening since time immemorial. In Tudor-Era England, contemporaneous diarists warned of a number of scams doing the rounds where conmen feigned illness in order to dupe do-gooders out of their hard-earned duckets.
If we are being completely cynical about it then isn’t this just one more example of the logical, inevitable consequences of tourism? Visitors to Cuba want the locals to Salsa and the consequence is an abundance of dance teachers, some with no qualifications and two left feet. Visitors to India want Indians to be spiritual so locals don orange robes and ask for money for the gods.
So if Westerners want Cambodian children to be orphans then let them be orphans right?
Out of the Orphanages and Into the Streets
The critics of voluntourism and those volunteering abroad may also counsel giving money or even lollipops to beggars in the streets of Delhi, Bangkok and Lima (many of whom are children and quite possibly orphans) as doing so arguably perpetuates the cycle of dependency and the problem. Is this all perhaps just one more symptom of a current backlash against charity? In the UK, a number of major ones are now facing regulatory investigation in the wake of thousands of complaints about their aggressive fundraising techniques.
For me, none of it is quite so black and white. Seeing the desperate, hungry street children really does tug on your heartstrings and telling yourself…
“I shouldn’t give to this skinny, dirty child clad in rags because it perpetuates a wider socio-economic problem. When I get home I’ll make a donation to a reputable organization that helps to eradicate poverty”
…really doesn’t make that feeling of guilt go away.
And this is what it comes down to. Wanting to help others is for many (I would say most) people a perfectly natural and healthy human instinct and one which I think should be encouraged. Therefore if somebody is actually willing to use their holiday helping others rather than simply relaxing on a beach then who else is anybody to question this?
A Criticism of the Critics
This is where I run the risk of perhaps being too brutal but I’ve got to be honest. I don’t feel like these criticisms come from travellers. I don’t think these criticisms come from travellers with the experience to criticise.
I’ve met a lot of backpackers in my day and I’m yet to meet one that feels the need to climb scale a high horse and pour derision on travellers that volunteer abroad. Because we’ve seen and we know.
We know what the face of some parts of this world looks like and we know the disparity. When we travel places like Cambodia, or India, or Peru… we see it first-hand. We understand how hard it is for so many people in this world and how easy it is for the rest. We understand that even just a little bit of help goes a long way.
It’s easy for someone that’s never seen the slums of Mumbai or the Eritrean refugees in Israel to criticise. Because they’re thinking with their head and not feeling with their heart. They don’t feel that unending urge to do something good, no matter how small and insignificant that something may be.
I feel, in a conversation like this, it’s important to turn to the people with the experiential evidence to back up their hot air.
My Experience Volunteering Abroad
I volunteered as an English teacher in Colombia working in very deprived areas on the Caribbean coast. I am not qualified to enter a classroom in any capacity back home so why did I feel I had the right to do so in Colombia? Indeed, when travelling I often apply the “Would this fly in the West?” test to assess the safety and morality of situations such as…
“Would I drunk drive this moped back home? No.”
However whilst this is useful, it isn’t always appropriate because guess what? We’re not back in the West. Things are sometimes just different out here than in the rest of the world.
Back home I wouldn’t ride all night on a humid, packed, rusty tin can of a bus and I certainly wouldn’t pay money for a hotel room that had no water and no electricity yet both are things I routinely have to do backpacking in India.
So by the same principle, whilst I may not have been a properly qualified teacher I was without a doubt the most educated person in the institution and moreover the only native English speaker. The qualified teachers themselves, whilst dedicated, made all manner of crucial grammatical errors and were delighted to have me on hand to help them.
Whilst I may not have been qualified I was certainly determined. Firstly, I did a full handover with the previous volunteer and went through the previous month’s lesson plans to gauge the skill level of the group. I then prepared two completely different lesson plans for my first lesson so that if one was either too advanced or too easy I would have a backup.
Unfortunately, I could see that not all of my peers were putting in the same effort and noticed that another group was rehearsing the “She sells seashells…” routine on a loop when I was teaching my group about the verb “Be” and its many manifestations. Then again, differing levels of teacher effort and enthusiasm is also a reality of Western, professional education from kindergarten right through to post-grad.
In my experience, the organisation I worked for was reputable and professional. Above all though, kids don’t lie and they really appreciated the time and effort I put in.
Is It Still Worth Volunteering Abroad?
So, is it still worth volunteering abroad? I would say to you that if you are considering a spot of voluntourism then good on you. My only advice to you is to firstly, ask yourself what is your motivation; why do you want to do this and how much effort are you willing to put in? Then it is important to do your research and find a reputable organisation.
I promise you this, a spell spent volunteering will provide you with memories that last long after the suntan you would have gotten from just lying on a beach has faded.
A Reputable Organisation for Volunteering Abroad: Worldpackers
I’ll get to some alternatives and tips in a minute but let’s cut straight to the chase: World Packers. World Packers are dope. They’re trustworthy and they’re a good organisation – trustworthy enough that we feel comfortable partnering with them and telling you about them.
Here’s the deal: one of our writers worked with them. He was sent out on one of their volunteer programs in Vietnam. Heres the other deal:
He’s a fucking madlad.
If he’d come back and said “Can the partnership,”, we would have canned it. Instead, he came back and said everything I believe to be true about voluntourism.
- That it’s an enriching experience.
- That he formed special relationships.
- That he was able to see the country from a deeper level.
- That, no, his whiteness and willingness to help wasn’t somehow damaging Vietnam.
Go fucking figure.
How to Volunteer with World Packers
Dude, it’s simple. You follow this link to World Packers, you use the code BROKEBACKPACKER to discount the yearly membership from $49 to $29, and then you go have a whimsical adventure full of smiles.
If somewhere along the way, someone tries to get up you for attempting to use your privileged position to help those in need, you send them to this article. If they keep giving you shit, feel free to tell them to blow it out their ass.
And get insured before you do volunteer overseas!
Because god knows that orphanage in Bangalore isn’t going to be able to foot the bill for your sudden case of typhoid.
What? There’s a vaccine for typhoid! Fuck, I really need to update my shots…
Shoutout from Will – The OG Broke Backpacker: Have fun on your backpacking adventure, but please do get insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling! Be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on an adventure! Travelling without insurance would be fucking stupid. Presenting my top recommendation: World Nomads!
Find out why I recommend World Nomads; check out my World Nomads Insurance review.
How To Find Another Reputable Volunteer Program
Regulation of this sector can be difficult and is not particularly consistent. There is no international volunteer program regulatory body. However, by doing your homework you can still ensure that you find a genuine, responsible programme.
Your first port of call should be the internet. If you want to volunteer in a particular country then search for “Volunteer programmes in X” (X being the name of the country) or if you are open about where you go try you can “Volunteer Teaching/Building/Agricultural work overseas”.
Check out a few different programmes. Look for testimonials, search for reviews of the organisation and see if they have a Facebook group. Also, don’t be afraid to contact them and ask them to put you in contact with previous volunteers through Facebook. Be sure to compare prices and ask for a breakdown of what these charges are for. Remember, they should not be making huge profits from this, only covering costs.
If you are already in a country then go and take a look at the programme for yourself before you sign up. Alternatively, skipping the internet crap and just going the old fashioned route (talking with real-life humans) often works just as well. In my experience, if you show a genuine and sincere desire to work and help, the opportunities will come to you.
And, as always, trust your gut!
A Few Alternative Volunteering Abroad Services
Here area few alternatives to World Packers to widen your scope. These services aren’t foolproof: they work on review systems which can sometimes be manipulated. Still, nothing is foolproof and part of being a traveller is learning to face challenges in an unsure landscape.
In summary, she’ll be right:
- WWOOF – It stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms so, yeah, it’s for working on farms. Get down, get dirty, and get some vitamin D! Oh, wait, that doesn’t quite sound right…
- Workaway – You can find farms, hostels, construction work… it’s a whole manner of things. A subscription is definitely worth the price of entry. Find out more about why Workaway is awesome!
- HelpX – Honestly, the difference between Workaway and HelpX is pretty negligible. Different name, same game!
- Facebook – Yep, Facebook does have its uses! Country and region-specific groups on the topic are a great way to find volunteering abroad opportunities.
- Local Websites – Like Craigslist but definitely not Craigslist. Just things like Craigslist; every country has a variant. A better example is Gumtree in Australia to see what I mean.
In Summary: Yes, volunteering abroad is still definitely worth it!
Don’t let the nay-sayers say nay. If they were winners, they wouldn’t be nay-saying. They’d be too busy living kick-ass lives travelling the world and doing good for the world while they’re at it!
I know I’ve been a bit rough on them but they do get under my skin. There is validity in their points – the world is one beautiful shade of grey and nothing is simple. But once you’ve travelled through some of the darker shades of grey in this world, things do simplify in a strange way.
You begin to realise that a helping hand is a helping hand and a smile is a smile. And, maybe just maybe, that’s more important than pissing into the wind.
Have fun, guys! Remember to keep your eyes open and your ears alert to anything that doesn’t feel right. If you stumble across a volunteer program with ill intentions, walk away and let the world know.
Anything past that, happy trails; get back to saving the world!
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Need more inspiration?
- Budget Backpacking 101
- The Best Travel Jobs
- Teaching English with VIPKIDS
- Affordable Volunteering Abroad Opportunities
- Guide to Responsible Travel
- The Best Backpacking Gear
Freeborn Aiden. Failed musician turned adventurer and writer. Breaker of a thousand hearts and father to as many illegitimate children. Can say “Fuck Off” in 5 languages but tends to stick to English. Has a surly unemployable face. Loves cats, mountains, Daal Bhat and travels with a hair dryer. Approach with caution.