I’ve had this chat with many people time and time again. Those who feel they are more educated than the average citizen often believe that voluntourism is a terrible thing. On the contrary, those who have never heard of this word before often make it out to be the most sustainable way to travel.
Both are right, both are wrong.
You need to be aware of what voluntourism stands for before engaging in missionary work abroad. To help you get a little sense of what to look for in the right organization, follow these few pointers:
Sustainability is all about meeting the needs of our current generation without compromising the needs of future generations to come. It is about creating a lasting difference that is long term. If you’re planning on coming to volunteer with the children for a two week venture and then say your farewells shortly after… you really need to consider what it is you’re bringing to the children. If you decide to sit in the classroom and engage in daily activities, the chances are this exchange may be more rewarding for you than it is for the children. Try and consider bringing new games and implementing new ideas to the classroom.
Example: In March of 2012 I travelled to Lima, Peru on a sports mission trip with my university class. We taught government officials, coaches and teachers how to implement sport into the classroom which would also integrate fundamental learnings such as dental hygiene, avoiding alcohol abuse, etc. Though we left only a few short weeks later, we knew that having left behind our skills, expertise and a book filled with ideas this would be a more sustainable venture.
The Right Focus
You might be surprised how often this happens. Volunteers come from across the globe engaging in volunteer travel with the belief that it is making a difference. This is the worst part about it, travellers come home, tell their friends what a remarkable experience they had volunteering in another country, without even realizing that they didn’t make a difference at all.
Example: If the hospital clinic in South Africa asks for creative art supplies for their pediatrics unit and you bring them a supply kit filled with rubber gloves and pain medication… this is not meeting the needs of the clinic, it’s simply bringing them what they don’t need.
The Right Skills
This was the hardest thing for me. I love working with children, I love being out in the nature and helping build new projects, but the right skills I had did not suit either of these jobs. It is so important that you sit down and write down the skills that you can bring to the volunteer travel opportunity which will help to make a sustainable difference.
Example: If you enjoy hiking and exploring the nature, this doesn’t make you suitable to help build their water treatment facility in the middle of the rainforest. This was a common problem that I would face, until I really started to understand what it meant to make a sustainable difference. I have exceptional skills online and using social media as a means of promotion. To be able to use these skills and teach others how to promote their businesses (orphanages, animal parks, etc.) is a truly beneficial means of volunteering.
I would love it if you could share below any organizations you’ve worked with who have really had a wonderful focus on philanthropic and sustainable travel!