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The Responsible Traveller: volunteering and the reality gap

Posted by Richard Hammond at 10:00 on Wednesday 02 September 2009

Increasingly, travellers are volunteering for placements abroad to work on conservation and development projects, thinking they will be benefit local communities while seeing some incredible parts of the world. But these trips can fail to live up to the lofty expectations - and the price, writes Richard Hammond...

A helping hand on the Bokamoso Bike programme, S. Africa Photo: Travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk

The Reality Gap
“Tell me and I will forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I will understand.” This ancient Chinese proverb reflects the underlying ethos of volunteering. Whether it’s just a weekend break or a long term placement overseas, the idea is that by living and working on scientific, conservation or development projects volunteers learn new skills, gain an understanding of local culture while giving something back to the places they visit. At least that’s the message sold by an increasing number of companies looking to cash in on the buoyant gap year market…

After leaving university, I volunteered for Raleigh International on an expedition to the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and Rodrigues, mapping coral reefs and working on conservation initiatives to protect the indigenous birds, such as the pink pigeon and Mauritian Kestrel. Back then, gap year projects like these were arranged by just a handful of voluntary organisations, requiring volunteers to raise thousands of pounds for several months of hard graft.

But times have changed. According to Market Research company Mintel, by 2006, the UK gap year was estimated to be over half a million people who spent US$5 billion, while the market for volunteering grew 5-10% from 2001-2006, reaching a value of US$150 million in 2006.

The typical gap year voluntary travel market has also diversified into a more casual (and usually short term) form known as “voluntourism” where travellers typically tag on to their holiday a few hours or days of volunteer work. Hands Up Holidays, one of the leading voluntourism companies, declares on its website: “Meaningful Volunteering + Luxury Sightseeing = An Inspiring Vacation.” The company offers over 100 voluntourism experiences in over 30 countries, typically 14 days long, such as a ‘Taste of Volunteering’ trip touring the north-east Natal province of Brazil, which includes helping out on a variety of projects such as constructing a cistern and reservoir, honey extraction, reforestation, and house building.

The opportunities for volunteering have never been greater, but there is increasing concern that not all placements deliver on what they promise. According to Catherine Raynor ofVoluntary Service Overseas (VSO), which organises work for volunteers from six months to two years in 41 developing countries, “While there are many good gap-year providers, there are a number of badly planned schemes that are spurious. Some volunteering gap year trips that cost several thousand pounds ultimately benefit no one apart from the travel companies that organise them”.

Delve into the active discussion groups of the increasing number of social networking sites dedicated to volunteering and among the tales of amazing experiences, you’re also likely to find those that tell of woe. Optimistic students armed with good intentions have arrived to find the organisers are not expecting them, or worse, they are not welcome by the host community.

Hannah Saunders, 19, from London, who paid a commercial organisation over £1,000 to teach English and maths to children in India found that the reality was very different from what she expected:

“I didn’t have any training or preparation from the organisation before I went, and they didn’t expect me to have any qualifications. I had a really tough time and suffered from culture shock, as India is so different from anywhere else, which I wasn’t ready for. I turned up at the learning centre and the teachers didn’t even know I was coming. It was very hard to find out what I was supposed to be doing. It wasn’t value for money, as there was very little support from the organisation before or during my time there.”

So how can you tell whether a volunteering experience will turn out to be worthwhile? Key ‘volunteering’ into a search engine and it will throw up hundreds of organisations offering everything from rigorous science research to little more than glorified holidays in the sun. According to Peter Lynch, author of the recently published Bradt Guide to Wildlife and Conservation Volunteering, it’s virtually impossible to choose the right kind of trip just by looking at the various websites. “The most important thing is to think through what is important for you, what is you want to hope to get out of the trip and what do you hope to leave as your contribution, environmentally and culturally. It’s easy to side-tracked with all the glitz, but half of all volunteering companies are really just tourism companies.”

Kate Stefanko at Travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk, which sends volunteers to community projects in Gambia, Madagascar, Nepal, Indonesia, Pakistan and South Africa, says that often the most worthwhile projects originate within the destination where local people have sought out specific help from agencies to select volunteers. “The bottom line is that the communities have to be involved and have the final say in the decision to accept volunteers and feel comfortable to turn down volunteers if they feel they are inappropriate.”

Although there is no governing body that regulates the volunteering industry, Comhlámh – an Irish association of development workers – has drawn up a Code of Good Practice for volunteers and agencies (www.volunteeringoptions.org). Comhlámh’s website also has a list of volunteering projects worldwide. The Ethical Volunteering website (ethicalvolunteering.org)has some useful tips on how to choose the right agency depending on how much time you have to give, and www.gapadvice.org provides an advisory service for gap year placements.

The most responsible organizations offer pre-departure training and provide support and further training during the project, including someone in the destination who has direct responsibility for volunteers with adequate provision in case things go wrong. VSO’s Catherine Raynor says this kind of support is crucial in managing expectations of both the volunteer and the volunteering organisation: “Life in developing countries is incredibly challenging and it’s not right for everyone. You can have the best professional skills in the world but if you can’t cope on a personal level with the challenges that are going to be thrown at you then it’s going to be a dissatisfactory experience for you and for the people you are working with.”

An edited version of this article, by Richard Hammond, was first published in his column ‘The Responsible Traveller’ in the September issue of Geographical, available in WHSmith and many independent newsagents. Subscribe online or order your copy by calling +44 (0)1795 414 881.

See also: Five Great Volunteering Trips

See previous article: The responsible traveller: ethical trekking


Finding a volunteer placement

Finding the right volunteer project for you can be a long process and I would recommend you do your homework! As stated in this article, there are so many providers and it can be confusing when trying to weed out the good from the bad. A good place to start is http://www.yearoutgroup.org/ where there are over 35 member organisation who have to follow set standards - a code of conduct - to be part of the organisation.
I would also suggest you contact the organisation you are interested in and ask to speak to past volunteers. You can also Google the organisation to find reviews.

Here at Africa & Asia Venture we offer 24 hour support to volunteers during projects, helping to put parents at ease. By offering a personal and one to one service we get to know each and every volunteer, and are therefore able to place them on suitable projects.

If you would like some help with your gap year plans please contact AV on info@aventure.co.uk or +44(0)1380 729009. Further details about our projects can be found at http://www.aventure.co.uk/

Volunteer companies: finding a balance

I am the director of Links for Change, an enterprise dedicated to supporting development, conservation and human and animal dignity through linking volunteers and charitable organisations around the world.

We don't run our own projects; we link volunteers with appropriate organisations around the world. By linking volunteers and charities and supporting both parties throughout the whole process, we feel we can help both organisations and individuals develop. We take the stress and apprehension out of the equation and help both sides understand how they can really benefit from such an experience.

For volunteers we offer a personalised linking service, providing placement options based on preferences and skills. We also provide a fully supportive service throughout the process, from pre-travel arrangements to continuing support whilst volunteering. I was saddened to hear about the experiences set-out in this article. I too have had various volunteer experiences and totally agree that the culture shock can be very tough. Unfortunately, Hannah's experience is no surprise to me. I have me many people who have had similar experiences and this is why I set up Links for Change.

However, I was also aware of the need to support organisations as receiving and hosting a volunteer can be a daunting experience too and can often create a situation of dependence and give the wrong impression of what a volunteer should help the organisation achieve. With this in mind, Links for Change uses the volunteer fee to provide a free volunteer recruitment service and complete support throughout the hosting process. We also now offer an advice ‘hot-desk’ where our partner organisations can receive one-to-one advice on any issue relating to the charity’s activities and development. We work closely with organisations to ensure that they develop their volunteer placements in line with the needs of the organisation rather than being driven by the role a volunteer wants to take up. By doing this, we try to ensure that the organisation's needs are at the heart of the volunteer linking process.

Of course, in an ideal situation, we would be able to provide this service to both parties for free but our service must be paid for eventually, be it through donation, government sponsorship or other. With this in mind, we felt that passing the cost on to the volunteer at least helped ensure that the financial burden was not placed on organisations already stretched in this current economic environment.

More information about our services can be found on our website: www.links4change.com

Grass roots volunteer projects

Hi Richard

A very interesting article – I’ve done quite a bit of conservation volunteering over the years and I share the impression that the lines between charitable and commercial interests are often blurred. It’s not always easy to know how much of a volunteer’s financial contribution will be used to further the aims of the project.

It’s astonishing how much the costs involved can vary. For example, many years ago I spent two wonderful months volunteering with a grass roots project working with leatherback turtles in Gandoca, Costa Rica, where the only cost involved was the money paid directly to local village inhabitants for room and board (around 50 dollars a week back then). To my knowledge, the project is still running – see http://www.ecoteach.org/foundation/anaiProjectList.asp

Turtle conservation work is, I think, an excellent volunteering option, as the work can often be learnt quickly and volunteers are able to make a meaningful contribution without having a scientific background or special skills. Some years later I was involved in work on a game reserve in Africa, which was an incredible experience in terms of wildlife viewing opportunities but very difficult to see how “volunteers” made any worthwhile contribution that was not financial.

I’ve found the guide published by Green Volunteer (www.greenvol.com) to be an enormously useful resource. They do list providers such as Operation Raleigh or i-to-i but also categorise projects by price with a general focus on grass roots, affordable volunteer opportunities. Purchase of the guide also gives free access to online database and newsletter for future updates.

Bob Carter
Nature Travels
UK specialists for responsible outdoor experiences in Sweden
Website: www.naturetravels.co.uk
Tel: 01929 463774

Re: volunteering and the reality gap

Thanks Richard for a good, well balanced article.
Volunteering abroad certainly is fraught with difficulties, and has to be done right in order for the community and environment to benefit, and for the participant to feel that they have made a positive, meaningful contribution.
Kate from Travel People and Places has correctly identified that community consultation and voice is essential.
Catherine from VSO is also right in saying pre-, post- and during trip support is vitally important.
We at Hands Up Holidays work hard to be market-leading in these areas, and are constantly seeking ways we can improve.
Because our trips are short-term, with volunteering projects typically for 4-5 days, our adventures have appeal to families, young professionals who are short on time but want to make a difference, as well as honeymooners, retirees, schools and companies.
We also support a voluntourism industry code of conduct to help all companies maintain high standards and benefit in sustainable ways the communities we are seeking to assist.
One final addendum:
The Hands Up Holidays trip in Colombia highlighted in this article is not live yet, but will be in a matter of days! It truly is a fabulous volunteer project, where you can immerse yourself in this community of former coca leaf growers, and help them leave their criminal activities and set up this fledgling eco-tourism operation!

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