Most travelers consider volunteering at some point. We see a need and we know that we have the time, energy, or money to be able to lend a hand and be a part of creating change. Helping people feels good. Working on environmental issues and seeing results is exciting. We don’t just want to talk about problems, we want to do something about them.
Most travelers also know that there is a strong push within the traveling community not to volunteer while abroad- ever. Volunteers often do more harm than good. Children get attached to a revolving door of volunteers and develop attachment issues. Foreigners create environmental systems and forget to train locals so that when they leave, it all falls apart. And then there is the endless discussion about the harm that comes from middle and upper class Westerners descending upon a developing nation to “save” or “empower” the people there.
So what is a traveler to do? Put their money where there mouth is and actually do something about the problems they see or stay away from the volunteer complex for fear of being labeled as one of “those people” who doesn’t recognize the harm volunteering can do?
I will be the first to admit that even the most well-researched volunteer opportunity can dissolve into a lesson on why so many people are against volunteering. Not too long ago, my husband and I found ourselves pulling away from a volunteer opportunity working with sea turtles when it became apparent that the founder and his assistant had very little respect for the local community. No amount of research into their organization, practices, or beliefs could have prepared us for their level of distaste for the local population or for some other unethical practices going on that had nothing to do with sea turtles or the environment.
I could use this experience to highlight exactly why no one should ever volunteer abroad. I could, but I don’t. That’s because I believe that the potential pitfalls are not enough to outweigh the potential benefits. I also do not think for one minute that any amount of negative exposure on the volunteer industry is enough to make everyone stop volunteering. The drive to do something positive, the belief that things can change, and the need to feel connected in meaningful ways to other people is not going away any time soon. Unfortunately, neither is the “savior complex” that too many volunteers root themselves in. Instead of debating whether volunteering is “good” or “bad” as a whole, a better use of our efforts might be in facilitating real conversation, especially with new volunteers, about how to best research opportunities and combat the “savior complex”.
Before making the decision to volunteer there are three huge questions I think volunteers should be asking.
1) Does tho volunteer opportunity perpetuate the need for more volunteers or does it foster local, sustainable growth with the aim of eliminating the need for outside volunteers? An organization that has plans to utilize foreign volunteers for the length of its existence is a red flag because it means the organization is either choosing to not training community members to do those same jobs or it has a belief that community members can’t do those same jobs. Either way, red flag. Your skill set or knowledge should directly relate to a need and, ideally, you should be sharing your knowledge with a local or locals who want to be able to carry on the work when you leave.
2) Is the organization working in meaningful ways with- not for- the local community? Working to strengthen a community and get to the root of a problem involves working with community members, not doing things for them because the organization “knows better”. This requires mutual respect and open dialogue.
3) Have cultural and community needs been taken into account and does the work reflect this? An organization that invites foreign volunteers but does not educate them on cultural norms, needs, and beliefs is an organization that is asking for conflict and resistance from the community. It’s also a sure sign of an organization that has at least a bit of a savior complex.
There are many other valid considerations as well but these are the three that I think get overlooked the most. Look at the language on the website or paperwork of the organization. How do they talk about the local population? What words do they use to describe the culture? Do they have a clear plan for working with community members? Red flags are not always in plain view, sometimes you have to be a bit of a detective to figure out what’s really going on. Even then, as in our experience, sometimes the evidence just isn’t there until you are on the ground. Don’t be afraid to walk away and don’t be afraid to share your experience with others.
As a final thought, it’s also very important that volunteers, as well as those who choose not to volunteer, hold ourselves accountable to the words we use to describe our experiences. We are not “saving” anyone. “If it weren’t for us” should be followed up with “someone else would fill the role”. And, I know this may seem radical, but the words “poor”, “uneducated”, “simple”, or “backwards” need not be employed to evoke pity for the communities volunteers work in. Treating the recipients of our volunteer hours as human equals goes a long way in avoiding the perpetuation of that “savior complex”.
There are very real concerns when it comes to volunteering abroad. There is also no doubt that changes need to be made in the way we view volunteering and how we go about it. However, there are many small, locally focused organizations in true need of foreign volunteers to get the ball rolling, get a specific project off the ground, or to share specific skills and knowledge with the locals ultimately running the program. Connecting with people and lending a helping hand does not need to be viewed as a vice when partnered with the word “volunteering” nor should we be glorifying any and all things volunteer related. There is a very real balance to be achieved when it comes to volunteering, no doubt about it. The question for everyone is, how do we do that?
There is a common trait among us travelers regarding the seasons: With the onset of spring, thoughts turn to traveling. It’s in our DNA. This can pose a conundrum for us, since another trait of the inveterate traveler is difficulty with deciding where to go next with limited resources (and they are always limited).This can provoke a lot of angst and indecision for us. For the next few posts, I’ll be examining the different ways travelers approach the big decision of the Next Destination in hopes that it will help some globe trotters who are hung up on the issue.
Things to think about are finite things such as time and money. Where is affordable? How far can my dollars stretch? Can I spend enough time there to really get a feel for the place, and still eat decently and sleep in a clean place? What’s the exchange rate? Dollars to pesos or pounds (Greece is a good deal these days)? Is a bed and meal cheap where you’re going? Are there budget options like hostels and humble, family-run B&B’s? As Americans, we’re the most time-poor people in the industrialized world, so will you be able to beg, steal, and borrow enough time to really get a feel for your destination?
If time is less of an issue than money (i.e. you’re an unemployed travel writer like myself) there are ways to get overseas and immersed in a culture while earning income, such as work-stays can be a good option; doing seasonal agricultural work on a family farm in exchange for room and board can lead to deep, rewarding cultural immersion (and a nice tan). If less labor-intensive jobs are to your liking, summer gigs at a resort or even a hostel can help pay the bills.
In the next post I’ll discuss some things you can do to help yourself pare your list down to a manageable level and really start planning an adventure to remember.
When travelling for extended periods of time, it is easy to reach a point of tiredness, when everything seems a bit jaded. The joy of zipping from one place to the other across the travel maps becomes increasingly less exciting, and we may be craving for something more, something “different”.
When this happened to me, I decided to dedicate some of my travel time to others in need: this year, as I was exploring the Indian subcontinent, I brought along a guitar which I used to entertain street children and the disabled. But for as much as this sounds interesting in writing, it was not easy to earn the trust of the many NGOs I contacted proposing my project. I actually have to say that the response was so small and disheartening that what started as my main objective had to be tuned down and reconsidered because of the overwhelmingly distrust I found all around.
However, all of the hours I spent sending emails to NGOs offices were not completely wasted: at least, I had the chance to visit the incredible Rishilpi project in Shatkira, Southwestern Bangladesh, a mere 70 km from Kolkata. Vincenzo Falcone, the always smiling Italian project manager, came to Bangladesh 35 years ago as a missionary in nearby Khulna. After having studied the language and served in Khulna for several years, he decided to get more involved and set the foundations for today’s impressive Rishilpi: a space where, besides providing free education for the poor and physiotherapy for disabled children, Vincenzo has developed a leather factory – giving work to many otherwise unemployed people – and a center for the purification of waters. Many years of hard work have configured Rishilpi as a little oasis outside busy Bengali small town Shatkira, a place you would probably not consider visiting in such a less visited country: but Rishilpi is the reason why you should, and you can.
During my brief one week stay, I managed to participate to the art class performing in front of children with special needs, and also organized a lecture about my travels in the Subcontinent for the older students. You may not believe it, but in Bangladesh travelling is perceived as a very dangerous past time: it was therefore very interesting to see how these kids reacted to the images of India, Nepal and the ethnically different Southeastern Bangladesh I showed them.
There are many departments and activities at Rishilpi, and volunteers are welcome to join bringing in their expertise: if you have a volunteering idea, Vincenzo would be happy to listen to it and welcome you if you can help. As he told me, “everybody can bring in their own thing, as long as they do it with their hearts, and are dedicated in bringing some help to the people of Shatkira’s division”.
If you feel inclined to do something for the needful, and keen in dedicating some of your time to a country that, despite a worldwide reputation as a disaster-zone, has a lot of incredible secrets to unveil, you should consider Bangladesh, and you should contact Rishilpi. It is rare to receive such a warm welcome and feel as useful and respected as it happened to me in Shatkira…
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Cowboys, everywhere – or gauchos as they are called here. It isn’t a daily occurrence, but every now and then a whole bunch will sweep into town and ride around, dressed up to the nines complete with fancy hats and tassels. They look spectacular.
Describe a typical day:
My boyfriend and I have been here for a month now, and we’re here mainly to get some work done (Steve is editing a feature documentary and I’m writing/making websites). We’ve rented an apartment looking onto the mountains and that’s our work base. Everything closes here from around 1-5pm. Even the surgeons go home to be with their families. It’s a beautifully relaxed pace of life. We go for walks around the pretty, cobbled town, shop in the local market, and sometimes go up the mountain to take in the sweeping views. Nighttime for us is quiet, although sometimes we might catch some live folklorico music at the local Casona de Molina. (more…)
The past few posts in the “summer work abroad” series have dealt with teaching ESL and work-stays as avenues to make a buck abroad in the summer months (or any month, really).
This third entry will be a bit different. In the rare case that you don’t need to make cash while spending a month or a season abroad, volunteering can be a helpful way to experience a culture first-hand in the process of doing some good. In recent years this approach to travel has gained in popularity. Volunteering’s three-for-the-price-of-one deal is attractive: The opportunity to get to know a culture, make new friendships, and have an adventure while doing a noble deed that’ll look good on the CV when the summer’s over.
And you might even get a nice tan.
Generally, volunteers don’t need special skills, except for medical projects in the Third World. Most programs are just searching for diligent, enthusiastic helpers looking to make a difference to those in need around the globe.
Opportunities can range from building homes for flood victims in humid Southeast Asia to planting crops and digging wells for clean drinking water in parched African villages. Positions helping with conservation and wildlife programs are available too.
Some first-rate organizations always looking for volunteers around the globe are Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders, American Red Cross, and United Nations Volunteers among others. They seek volunteers to fill a critical void in the fields of environmental research, conservation, education, and community development.
More culturally-related opportunities can be in had too, especially in Europe, like digging at an archaeological site. I did this at the Shakespeare Home archaeological excavation at the writer’s former homestead in Stratford-upon-Avon, England (more about this cool experience in a future post). I made friends I otherwise wouldn’t have met and held a long-buried piece of the legendary author’s home in my hand.
There are dozens of helpful websites that can help you sort through the enormous menu of options. Many of them can parse the possibilities for people looking to volunteer in everything from medical assistance to woman’s empowerment for a week, a whole year or anywhere in between in scores of countries.
Some good resources include: http://www.goabroad.com/volunteer-abroad (great site with over 27,000 opportunities abroad updated daily), http://www.gviusa.com/ (a non-political, non-religious organization running over 100 programs in 25 countries), http://www.unitedplanet.org/volunteer-abroad (they’ll help to find a project in most categories in up to 40 countries), http://www.serveyourworld.com/articles/264/1/Free-Volunteering-Abroad (a well-run site with links to lots of excellent organizations and projects).
If this piques your interest, find a place and a position to plug into and get going. You’ll get as much out of it as you’re willing to put into it. Be ready to get your hands dirty and sweat for free, and make a difference.
There has been a lot of talk on Vagablogging lately about the merits of slow travel and taking time to understand local culture when traveling. This was my goal when I came to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, to volunteer at an after-school program for a month, and I quickly discovered an even better, unexpected outlet for cultural immersion – Spanish school.
There are dozens of Spanish schools throughout Guatemala – and hundreds in Latin America overall – aimed at teaching Spanish as a second language. Many programs focus on medical or social work Spanish and partner with schools in other countries to offer an elective course or an “away rotation” for medical students.
I decided to take Spanish classes after arriving in town and realizing that although I could get by with my “basic” Spanish, it wasn’t enough to make a real difference as a volunteer. Plus, I figured it would benefit my upcoming months of travel throughout Latin America. I quickly found even more benefits:
Aside from Spanish lessons in Latin America, do you know of other locations that are popular for learning other languages?
Have you learned a language in another country? What did you think were the benefits?
If you haven’t read last week’s post on the “Rise of the Tourist“, I suggest you give it a quick once-over before reading on. Short on time? No problem. I’ll sum up the broader points: Tourism is big business and in 2012 there is expected to be 1 billion global travelers. This trend will continue so long as there is economic progress in previously economically depressed nations, and, so long as there is an industry to market, package, and deliver destinations. This isn’t necessarily a horrendous development, but rather one that is full of potential.
All caught up? Alright then…
What’s the problem with more “tourists” anyhow? After all, that’s a tide that shouldn’t (and can’t) be turned. More travelers on the road can loosely be equated to more cultural exchange, more economic growth at local and national levels, and, generally speaking, broadened horizons for all.
I like to think so, but based on what the fine print on my vagabonding card says, I’m obligated to point out that independent travel (long-term or otherwise) is inherently different than what the majority of “tourists” will experience. So what insights can the vagabonding perspective offer to the those inclined to partake in all-inclusive, pre-package, culturally sterile vacations? Here’s a few thoughts:
Patronize the locals. Eat, shop, and lodge locally. Foreign owned companies often own hotels and airlines and restaurants and all manner of shops and by patronizing them you’re essentially creating the “leakage effect“. Find out where your dollars are going. Local isn’t necessarily always better, but it does mean you’re directly funding and impacting a community – aim for that.
Travel slow. A theme covered recently on vagablogging (Read more here and here), traveling slowly, with purpose, while soaking up the moments is a central aspect to understanding the world and cultures and peoples around us. Travel should be more about the experience (and less the extravagance) and a good experience should always be savored and never rushed.
Go where your presence matters. Burma? Egypt? Greece? Haiti? Japan? Skip the hotspots and go where your money matters. Burma, Egypt, and Greece are all clamoring for international tourism to return. As for Haiti and Japan, both nations who’ve been hit by disaster in installments, these nations can use your time and help either as an in-country traveler or as a volunteer.
Widen your world view. Let go of any ethnocentric thoughts and embrace other perspectives. Read up on where you’re headed. Familiarize yourself with the history, the land, the people, the languages, the customs, etc. Challenge your own assumptions as they relate to governance, security, religion and the global relationships between nations and individuals. You don’t have to compromise your beliefs, but realize that there are a myriad of other perspectives.
Be respectful of nature and replenish yourself in it. Take the time to reflect, if not also genuflect, in nature. Cherish the wide open spaces that rival the expansive soul residing within you. The world is wild and impartial and that’s just its way of reminding you how indifferent it is to your worldly concerns. I’m obligated to add that you should (re)read Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire“.
I realize that the long-term, vagabonding perspective towards traveling and life may be a bit extreme for most, but, as in politics and religion and life, the extremes have a way of informing and pushing the center. There’s a brave new generation of 21st century sojourners out there and they’ll be hitting the “road” in unrelenting waves, year after year…let’s see if we can push them a bit in the above directions and, hopefully, in the process create more travelers and less tourists.
If you’ve searched for volunteer abroad opportunities, you’ve undoubtedly learned that volunteering doesn’t often come free. You’ve likely come across many, many organizations that charge fees, often upward of $1,500 per week, to cover accommodation, food and support of a coordinator for the volunteer experience.
Sections like, “Why should I pay to volunteer?,” are featured so prominently on these organizations’ websites that it’s obvious they get these questions often – and for good reason: Most of us who want to give our time and effort to help others don’t expect to have to pay to do so.
After coming across several of these sites myself, I began to accept this as the status quo and started thinking about how I’d fund my volunteering. But then I dug a little deeper and found the other end of the spectrum: Organizations that pride themselves as resources for volunteer opportunities that don’t charge high fees. These sites often aggregate information about free or low-cost volunteer projects, providing links directly to the NGOs so you can cut out the “middle man” and coordinate your volunteer experience on your own.
This independent approach has an added benefit for long-term travelers – especially those who don’t have a set itinerary – as coordinating directly with the NGO often allows for more flexibility regarding length of volunteering and start dates. It also eliminates the need to pay for coordination of accommodation, food and transportation, which most backpackers are already accustomed to doing themselves.
Here are some of the sites that I’ve found to be helpful:
Latin America- and Guatemala-specific sites (because I was searching specifically for opportunities in Guatemala, I became most familiar with these sites):
After weeks of researching and narrowing my options, I decided on an opportunity in Guatemala I’d found through Entremundos. I’ve found working directly with the NGO coordinator to be seamless, simple and flexible – in fact I’ve changed my arrival date twice with no problem. I also was pleasantly surprised to find that the NGO has provided support regarding details for arrival, transportation and accommodation recommendations – so there would have been no need for an official “middle man” coordinator anyway.
All I have to do now is show up to their weekly volunteer meeting when I get in town, and I’ll be ready to start volunteering the next day. It’s the perfect amount of informality yet structure for a backpacker like me.
“Spirit,” wrote the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, “is not in the I but between I and you.” He wrote this in a 1923 essay translated into English as I and Thou. Here’s another line from the essay: “Egos appear by setting themselves apart from other egos. Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons.”
Buber’s way of looking at our existence is, for me, helpful to consider, and it has ramifications for how we approach travel and what we emphasize in it. His essay also touches on the difference between “experience” and “participation,” the former for him being something within an individual and the latter something between individuals. I suspect you can find Buber’s influence on my own terminology in an interview at Travel Blissful a couple years ago. After sharing some particularly meaningful travel memories, I said:
It is the men, women, and children in the places we visit, not inanimate things, that allow us to relate to (and not just experience) the world. I don’t at all want to knock experience — I love it! — but it’s important to be aware that traveling in the name of “having experiences” isn’t the same as traveling to participate in the world. The one is rather self-referential; the other is more interested in being a part of a community, even if only in a very modest way.
This is my final post for vagablogging, and I wanted to leave you with these tidbits from the mind of Buber. I also wanted to leave you with one final photograph. I took it in Cairo, about an hour after Mubarak’s resignation was announced and a mass of Egyptians had taken to the streets in celebration. In the photo a little girl’s parents are holding her hands as they walk away from Tahrir Square, into a suddenly wide-open, unknown, and hazard-filled future. In looking at her face I’m reminded of why I have no interest in travel narratives in which someone is trudging through the world to conquer it or to rack up isolated experiences to cart back home like trophies. I’m drawn instead to stories in which someone is connecting to other people, carrying an interest in their wellbeing and our shared future, and can articulate that. The issues of today — and children like this smiling Egyptian girl — desperately need people, including travelers, who want to be constructive participants in relationships and history.
In the year ahead I’ll continue working on my photography, and maybe even edit some more of a book manuscript I hope to one day publish (here’s an excerpt). Blog-wise, in the near future I plan to resume regular postings at joelcarillet.com/photoblog, and I’d love to have you check in on me there from time to time. I will be in Southeast Asia most of the fall.
All the very best, everyone.
Note: Today I’m featuring a guest post from Sarah Von Bargen, who writes about travel (and many other things) at the excellent lifestyle blog Yes and Yes. Keep an eye on her Radio Yes podcast, where she and I will chat about long-term travel in an upcoming episode. Here, Sarah shares four key tips for volunteering overseas:
There are lots of great reasons to volunteer while you’re traveling: You can work alongside locals, earn a bit of good karma or just have something to do other than sunbathe and look at ruins. Finding the right program isn’t always easy. After 25 countries and eight different volunteer programs, here are a few of the tips that I’ve picked up along the way.
1. Decide what you want out of the experience
Are you volunteering as a cheap-o way of finding accommodation? Do you want work experience? Are you really, genuinely concerned about the plight of the star-bellied sneetch? Or are you looking to hook up with a cute, dreadlocked idealist with an adjective for a name? Valid reasons, all. Once you’ve sussed out your motivation, it’ll be easier to find a program that’s right for you.
If you’re more concerned about the cheap lodging, it’s easy to find work-for-lodging exchanges with just about any hostel in the world. Just pop round and ask at the front desk what their policies are.
WWOOF and Helpx are also great resources if you want to organize something ahead of time. If you’ve got a cause that you’re passionate about, just try googling that along with ‘volunteer opportunities.’ When I punched in the words “volunteer sea turtle rescue” I got heaps of results!
2. Decide what you can afford
Oddly, some volunteer programs are incredibly expensive. We can probably agree we’d rather not pay someone to work for them. Of course, if you’re volunteering in a developing country, many organizations can’t cover your living costs and will ask you to pay your own way. However, these costs should be very minimal, since room and board in those countries is quite reasonable.
Free or cheap volunteer options in Europe are a bit harder to find because, well, doesn’t everyone want to hang out in Italy over the summer? But they are out there, if you give the internet a good scour (like this one restoring medieval houses!). Here are links to some free/low-cost volunteer programs in developing countries. And here are a few more.
3. Do your research
Of course, before you commit to anything/buy a ticket/send a deposit, you should know what you are really, truly getting into. Ask your organization for the email addresses of former volunteers and ask them for their honest opinion about the experience. Look into the local climate/culture/crime-rate/culinary style. You could easily find yourself involved with a ‘great’ program in a cold, rainy, dangerous city where only meat and potatoes are served – when you might prefer a ‘good’ program in a sunny, gorgeous city full of smiling people.
4. Keep in mind the ethics of international volunteer experiences
As we’ve established, the reasons to volunteer are many and varied. If you’d like to volunteer because you’re passionate about a cause, think before you spend any money. If you’re a marketing exec who cares deeply about the educational opportunities of Peruvian girls, instead of spending $1,000 on a plane ticket and attempting to teach the girls yourself – consider donating that money to an established organization that addresses those needs. Your $1,000 will give employment to a trained, local teacher who will be able to help those girls, and the surrounding community, more than you could have.
If you do choose to volunteer for your chosen cause, you’ll be most helpful if you volunteer within your area of professional expertise. NGOs need help with their websites, schools and hospitals need to amp up their marketing and fund-raising skills, refugees need physical and emotional therapy. Sure, it’s not quite as sexy as building a school in Africa with your bare hands or releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean, but you’ll be more helpful and affect more change. And isn’t that the whole point?