Voluntourism, or volunteering for a charitable organisation during a pleasure trip, is a popular phenomenon in Southeast Asia.
Not all voluntourism, however, is really helping those whom it is supposed to be benefitting. If you are thinking of doing this, we ask that you keep the following in mind.
First, would you be allowed to do this in your home country?
If you were to show up as a complete stranger to an orphanage in your home country to play with the kids, would you be allowed? Most likely not. Why should you be permitted to do it in Cambodia, Thailand, Burma or anywhere else in Southeast Asia?
Unfortunately organisations purporting to be working to help the welfare of “orphans” regularly facilitate visits by unscreened travellers, and while even the most well-meaning foreigner can go into this kind of thing with the best of intentions, research indicates that they are doing more harm than good to the children.
Any organisation that allows unscreened adults to have short-term access to children should absolutely be avoided. To put it another way, are you a parent/uncle/aunt? How would you feel about a complete stranger being allowed to come in off the street and play unsupervised with your child/niece/nephew?
Ask yourself why exactly you are volunteering. Do you spend much time volunteering in orphanages in your home country? Why not? Need it be said, children are not a tourist attraction.
If you want to really help orphans in Southeast Asia, find a reputable organisation that is doing good work and make a donation to help them keep doing what they’re expert at doing. Or, if you’re serious, take the time and make the effort to get screened and volunteer for a serious amount of time—three to six months is a good starting point.
But if the main result of your volunteering is four days playing with poor kids and a set of happy snaps, you are a part of the problem and you are fuelling the demand that is seeing fake orphans siphoned off into fake orphanages.
There are however lots of other volunteering options that don’t rely on taking advantage of the vulnerable.
Environmental organisations may have volunteer openings; wildlife and forestry groups are always on the lookout for skilled volunteers. We emphasise the "skilled" here. What would you be bringing to the organisation? If you don’t have any relevant skills, chances are you’ll be put into manual labour, in which case you’re probably depriving an unskilled local of a job—why should an organisation pay locals to dig holes in the ground when foreign volunteers will do it for free?
What can you contribute?
If you can’t answer that question with a decent answer, honestly ask yourself why you are volunteering at all—and if the answer is because you want to feel good and feed your ego, then, to be blunt, don’t volunteer.
If you want to “make a difference” and help out, take a look at your skill set and find an organisation that you think you can actually help and get in touch. If you don’t have a relevant skill set, then maybe you should be concentrating on developing one.
There is a lot of pushback about the idea of paying to volunteer, but in our opinion, all volunteering shy of three months or so should be fee-based. Absolutely. Short-term volunteers who don’t make a financial contribution to where they are “volunteering” are a burden. Why? Because you’re going to need to be fed and housed and shown around. Someone is going to need to explain to you how everything works, you’ll need to orientated, introduced, and, for the untrained volunteers, you’re going to need to be trained to do something. All of these soak up precious resources.
Yes, of course over time you’re going to make an actual contribution. The longer you stay, the more real that contribution will be, but short-term volunteering is a definitive drain on organisations.
So ask yourself:
Why do I want to volunteer?
Who do I want to volunteer for?
What specific skills do I have that are relevant?
What am I trying to achieve?
How long can I volunteer?
How much am I budgeting to volunteer?
If you can’t come up with legit answers to all of the above, you shouldn’t be volunteering. Period.
Lastly, if you don’t have specific training relevant to kids and are not willing to commit to a lengthy spell of volunteering, you should be nowhere near kids. If you think you should be, again, you are a part of the problem.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.