8.8 Negative effects of volunteer tourism
Performing humanitarian aid as a volunteer has drawn the attention of many, especially young people. Part of those are not happy with certain aspects of current society, so they want to do something good to feel better about themselves and society. Others just do volunteer work because they find it ‘cool’. Many of these modern volunteers aren’t really volunteers, but more humanitarian tourists. The goal of volunteer work is often to help a poor local community either with educational projects or environmental projects. If you want to know if your work as a volunteer will be sustainable it is good to first ask yourself the following questions:
• Why you want to do volunteer work? Do you really want to help? Were you encouraged by friends or society? Or is it to improve your C.V.?
• Would you do the same volunteer work in your own country? And if not, why do you want to do this work in another country?
• Which of your skills can be useful for the volunteer project? Are you a teacher, a vet, a carpenter, an accountant, a manager, a marketing specialist, a doctor, or do you possess any other skill that can be useful for the volunteer project?
• Do you speak the language of the country you want to work in?
• Do you have enough time?
A very common mistake that volunteers make is that they travel to another country and suddenly think that they’re skilled teachers or vets. I am sure that you’ve seen the advertisements: “Come to Peru and teach English to poor children. Minimum requirements: one month and a basic level of Spanish.”… Not only do you potentially take jobs away from local teachers, but do you believe that it is that easy to be a teacher? That teachers didn’t have to follow any studies to become a teacher? Just think back about your childhood. Imagine you’re English speaking but each month you got a different inexperienced teacher from Mexico. They all spoke Spanish and just a little English, while they tried to teach you Spanish and mathematics… Not only is this way of teaching very unsustainable, but there are studies which prove that short term volunteer work causes mental damage to young children. They feel abandoned time and time again when their teachers keep disappearing… A good article about this is called: Teaching orphans. If you want to teach and be sustainable, make sure to have at least a (school) year’s time. Even better would be, instead of teaching children, train their teachers to become better.
There is a difference between having good intentions and doing good. In many South American countries, it is relatively easy to start a volunteer project and most of the projects are set up with good intentions. Many of them are managed by people who don’t really know what they’re doing. It takes a lot more than just good intentions to set up a volunteer project and sometimes these projects end up doing more harm than good. Doing volunteer work with little children is very popular, but unfortunately not all volunteers who sign up try to help those children. It is a known problem that pedophiles abuse the easy accessibility of NGOs that work with children. Although you can’t prevent this problem completely, it is very important that many NGOs take their recruiting more seriously. It is important to conduct a thorough interview with your new volunteer and also doing a background check before you allow them to work with children. When you have an official NGO that works with children you will be able to receive access to an official database for known sex-offenders and pedophiles.
In several poor countries parents can’t pay for all their food, so they send some of their children to Western run orphanages. This sounds understandable, but these children aren’t orphans and belong with their family. While the orphanages now receive volunteers and money to take care of these poor children, it would be better to invest this effort in maintaining these children with their families where they belong.
Inexperienced animal refuges, on the other hand, tend to make the mistake that all wild animals that look healthy can be released back into nature. Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case. Besides the fact that many animals are likely not to survive in the wild, some might even carry contagious diseases. In the area where they originally come from birds might be immune to a certain disease. But releasing them in another area where the birds aren’t immune can potentially kill the wild population.
Volunteer work is still mainly considered to be ‘a good deed’. For this reason there’s worldwide very little independent supervision. Especially in South America, I know from experience that the quality and sustainability of many volunteer projects is questionable. A common problem with volunteer projects is the lack of training and information. Many volunteer organizations and travel agencies which sell volunteer work don’t train and inform their volunteers properly. Volunteers often don’t know what’s expected from them and what they can expect to encounter. Several organizations, even the bigger ones (incl. Peace Corps and Childreach) fail to properly manage and support their volunteers abroad. According to an article in Sentineland Enterprise it has been proven that since the inception of the well-known Peace Corps in 1961 at least 279 volunteers have died ‘in-service’ while one went missing in Bolivia. Of course, this isn’t all to blame on the volunteer organization, but it does show that doing volunteer work in foreign, developing countries comes with risks. Those potential risks should not be underestimated.
A lesser-known negative side effect of volunteer projects occurs when they start to become more commercial and start trying to sell tours to their volunteers. Part of this money usually does go to the poor people or animals supported by the project, but they often forget that their sales can be a negative influence for small local businesses. Volunteer organizations don’t have to pay taxes and therefore are able to sell their tours at a lower price than the official travel agency next door. This unfair competition can take clients and income away from the local businesses which need these clients to make a living. On top of it all, many local volunteer projects don’t work together and there are even cases known where they compete to receive more volunteers! This happened with two orphanages in Peru and some animal refuges in Ecuador that I know about. The examples above might sound a bit extreme and I have also encountered several very professional and well-organized volunteer projects and organizations. But how do you recognize a good volunteer project? It can be difficult as a volunteer to find out if a volunteer project is effective or sustainable.
Volunteer organizations that charge a high fee to participate usually have more money to spend on advertisements and are therefore easier to encounter online. If you want to know if a volunteer organization is worth your time and money a good test is to ask them to provide you with their financial information from the previous year. This way you can decide for yourself if you agree with how they might spend your money. Each official volunteer organization is obliged to make its annual statements public. So if they don’t want to show you, then there’s a good chance that they’re badly organized, or have something to hide. If the volunteer organization passes your test, then make sure to spend some time to ask them as many questions as you have about the project and the work you will be doing.
8.9 Ecological farms
As explained earlier, not every (tourist) project that is called eco or sustainable is actually sustainable. Many so-called sustainable (tourist) projects can only survive with the help of their donors or volunteers. Within volunteer tourism, new popular (tourist) businesses in South America are the so-called ecological agriculture farms. These farms are often owned by foreigners and try to grow their food without using chemicals. Of course, this is great, but one of their downsides is that many of them work with short term un-paid foreign volunteers. Without having to pay for employees, these farms can lower their production costs and sell their products at a lower price than the local farmers. This makes it suddenly less sustainable for the local economy. If those eco farms want to make a positive impact they should hire and train local workers to work for them. I know from experience that this isn’t going to be easy. Especially in the countryside the level of education is very basic. Often people with lower education levels haven’t been taught to show initiative either. If they’re farmers or work in their family business, they’re used to follow the same routine for generation after generation. In many other jobs, they’re just being told exactly what they have to do and won’t do anything else. So generally speaking many local people have a different perspective on life, different common sense, different expectations, and therefore a different motivation to work.
On top of having different backgrounds, there is often a lack of trust between foreigners and local people working together in developing countries. Again, a big part of this problem is a lack of understanding. The foreigner doesn’t understand the motivation of the local people while they think that the boss is rich. Somehow this also makes the people believe that they deserve more than they’re already receiving. This is a bit cynical, because the smaller, or medium foreign businesses often treat their employees better than many businesses owned by wealthy local families. Still, I know of several examples where the local employees abused the trust they received from their foreign employer by stealing from them. It is often just about little things and with the excuse that their employer can afford to lose it, but it does undermine trust.