Voluntourism - the good the bad and the ugly..

Voluntourism good intentions often exploited? Most people have heard about the rorts known as ‘orphanages in places like Cambodia and Nepal. The following items, article and website, are written by young people who have experienced the murky work of commercial volunteering. Bottom line, if its hard to get a place with a volunteer organisation, you have appropriate skills and they want you for 6 months plus then you are probably assured it’s a genuine operation.

Some big reads, but they both express things so well!

After taking time out to experience voluntourism for himself, Matt Castell pens an opinion piece on how he feels about the growing sector.

“I spent a month volunteering at a yoga retreat,” coos the twenty-something, recently graduated white kid from Sydney’s North Shore. “It was like, totally eye-opening… You know?

Yeah, I know… How you saved $1500 on your food and board package by cleaning toilets and spraying yoga mats for a few hours every day. Then you probably joined hands with the other volunteers and belted out a few verses of Kumbaya My Lord before tucking into the vegan lasagne that was prepared by Aurora, the Californian volunteer cook that turned up this morning.

Or maybe it wasn’t a yoga retreat… Perhaps it’s an organic farm that was built from the ground up by a German couple that decided to shirk the doldrums of life in Hamburg and bought a beautiful little piece of land in Sri Lanka. They’re getting on a bit so decided to enlist the help of WOOFER’s (or more recently WorkAway’ers) to plant their orchard.

If you haven’t heard of WOOFING or WorkAway I’ll sum it up pretty quickly. People around the world exchange accommodation and meals (or sometimes just one) in exchange for work. The work itself can range from simple labour – like gardening and tending animals, to skilled jobs like website design or marketing.

It all sounds pretty harmless right? What a great way to travel the world on the cheap! Meeting people, learning new skills, etc.

But here’s the problem – that gardening job could’ve been filled by Juan, who lives down the road and has been looking for work for months. Instead of earning a few dollars for a hard days work that will put food on his plate, he watches Lindsay and Katie from Vancouver giggle at each other as they try to work out how to push a wheelbarrow.

Ling-Ling just finished her college course and would love to help design a website for the new hostel that just opened up in Yangon. But Steve from London just checked in for his three-week stay and has offered to plonk something together on WordPress in exchange for reduced room rates.

That’s just one side of it… I’ve been staying in hostels all over the world for the past couple years. I’ve got a pretty good handle on how they’re usually staffed (by locals or backpackers). The hostels with the best staff ALWAYS use locals – and it makes perfect sense – if Mariana from Cusco has been working the check-in desk for five years she probably has a pretty good idea on the systems, customer service procedures and probably knows the way to the best ceviche joint in town.

Now, let’s replace Mariana with Jake from Adelaide who loves to smoke weed, has been in Peru for three weeks and enjoys working in a hostel because it’s an easy way to pick up girls. We don’t need to guess which person will create a better experience for the everyday customer.

I recently stayed at the Evergreen Hostel in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It’s fairly new and run by a helpful Kiwi ex-pat named Matt. He employs three local guys to run the day-to-day operations like cleaning, maintenance and cooking (incredible) meals for guests. They’re extremely keen to help with anything and well trained to handle whatever comes as them – especially the cook, who worked in the kitchen at the Dubai French Embassy.

I was blown away by these guys’ eagerness to make a good impression on every person that walked through the door – and it made me wonder if I would receive the same welcome from a South African surfer dude saving $15 per day for a night-shift on the front desk. I doubt it.

That leads me to my last point – is it worth it from a volunteer’s perspective? It’s a hard question to answer, as every experience will be different. I’ve heard some amazing stories and some horrific ones too.

I actually tried WorkAway last year and found myself working at a jungle surf camp in Costa Rica. It was a weird situation and one where some volunteers found it hard to walk away from. I didn’t, and left a lot earlier than I was supposed to – and this is the problem, some hosts (the people that hire volunteers) treat their volunteers like slaves, dictating when they can leave the property or demanding extra duties that weren’t talked about upfront.

I’m not saying that all volunteering is bad. There are some great programs out there that take all my concerns on-board and make sure that they actually improve the lives of local people – rather than taking their jobs. It’s up to travellers and Travel Agents to push these programs to the forefront and perhaps question the motives of globetrotters who only want a cheap bed.