Voluntourism: Who Is It Helping?

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Almost exactly two years ago, I left Heathrow Airport on a eleven-hour flight for the tropical paradise that is Costa Rica. This was to be the first leg of my ‘gap year’ abroad, volunteering at a Sea-Turtle conservation project on Gandoca beach, situated right next to the Panama border on the Caribbean coast.

Like so many other gap year-travellers, my travelling companion and I had been drawn to a volunteering project through our desire to ‘make a difference’. The destination, I will admit, was chosen solely due to the jaw-dropping beaches and Caribbean climate. We booked our turtle adventure through a company called RealGap, who work with an organisation called Widecast on their sea turtle projects. During the time prior to our departure, RealGap were incredibly helpful and reassuring, making sure every detail was planned, from insurance policies to organising a lift for us from San Jose airport when we arrived. It is safe to say that our hopes were high as we checked into our hostel in the capital before setting off for Gandoca beach the next day.turtle

However, the fact that after six hours on a coach, driving into veritable wilderness and being instructed to take a taxi ride down the remaining dirt track to the actual conservation centre, in a village which seemed to contain an unnervingly small amount of buildings, let alone taxis, had rendered us a tad sceptical. In the end, we were driven the last few miles to Gandoca by a not altogether trustworthy man in a pick-up truck, our backpacks slung casually into the back. Then, once we had finally located the centre with help from a plethora of locals, it turned out our arrival was completely unexpected by all staff and we were squeezed into a set of bunk-beds in someone else’s bedroom, before being hastily added to the rota.

Our two week stay in Gandoca did improve from that point, as we became fully immersed in constructing hatcheries for the turtle eggs that we collected during four hour night-patrol sessions up and down the beach. These tasks involved us working with not only a group of like-minded volunteers from all corners of the globe, and international staff members, but also numerous local villagers, all of whom were employed by the project, and  did not speak a word of English. It was the fact that Widecast provided an income for these locals and their families that wouldn’t have been possible had we not paid to partake in the project, that somewhat restored our faith in the endeavour. However, once back in the UK, I couldn’t resist conducting some research into the type of work we had done and if it really was as beneficial as claimed.

My initial research led me to some generic ‘Voluntourism’ websites, with a view to ascertaining exactly what the main selling points of this type of travel are. A common theme was the description of the participating of the volunteer as a ‘crucial role in conservation, education and community projects’ . Another website chose the luring tagline ‘a really great way to have a holiday AND actively contribute to the destination you are visiting’. So it appears that, just as I experienced, the attraction of Voluntourism is the idea that you are not only taking from the country you visit in terms of experience and cultural enlightenment, but you are, for want of a better phrase, giving something back. Considered as such, it is an admirable and positive notion that a vast number of young people are being drawn towards charitable projects out of a desire to do something they consider as selfless.

This has certainly been commented upon as a positive side of Voluntourism and travel and a great addition to any CV. An article published online for the Guardian claims that ‘employers were particularly keen to hear about the “soft skills” students pick up when travelling, volunteering and working, because they do not trust universities to teach the arts of communication, teamwork and leadership’. Indeed, I would agree that my two weeks at Gandoca beach taught me vast amounts, most prominently commitment (as I struggled out of bed at midnight to begin grueling night-patrols, and returned from hatchery duty covered in blisters) and communication (whilst using my limited Spanish skills to take direction from and chat to the locals). But this is only evidence that the ‘Voluntourists’ benefit from these projects. What about the communities and other causes they aim to help?

Wikipedia references Voluntourism.org on this issue, claiming that ‘short term volunteer vacations may serve to strengthen the ‘us and them’ dichotomy instead of acting to bring people from different backgrounds together,’ and ‘may help reinforce stereotypes and preconceived ideas’. This could be a problem for more construction based projects, which could potentially be taking labour away from local tradesmen who need it, in order to provide a sense of achievement to travellers from much more privileged countries. This in turn can lead to a lack of support towards the local economy. This sentiment is echoed by another article on the same issue, which claims the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) have accused ‘gap year companies of increasingly catering to the needs of young people, rather than the communities they claim to support’ .

Further research also revealed that we were not the only keen philanthropists to have questioned the organisation of our volunteering endeavor. The same article also claims that it is a growing worry that the number of schemes that are being introduced are ‘ultimately benefitting no-one apart from the travel companies that organise them.’ I also pondered upon whether or not the money I paid to ‘save the turtles’ went back into the project and was used to provide the local’s wages, or if the bulk of it was simply taken as commission by RealGap. With this in mind, I ventured once again onto the RealGap website. According to the price allocation, our money had paid for our stay in the hostel in San Jose, all meals, our airport pick up and quite a lot more.

Provided that at least some of what we paid is purely for the project and the locals, I don’t personally feel that we overpaid for the experience at all. Of course, as my research has highlighted, part of the fee almost definitely was taken as commission by RealGap, and as much as this isn’t ideal, it is certainly true that if charities like Widecast, which are not only, (I definitely believe) hugely successful, but also vital providers of income for local people would not be able to attract anywhere near the amount of volunteers were they not accessible through larger companies such as RealGap. Provided the projects chosen by ‘voluntourists’ are genuinely beneficial to both local communities and those taking part, I would consider Voluntourism as something that should be celebrated.

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I am studying English and Philosophy in my 2nd year, I live in a house with 4 weirdos, a trampoline and two fish called Jermaine and Vince. I love the write, I have two blogs, and also write for Summit magazine :)

Discussion3 Comments

  1. avatar

    You said they employed locals, so there’s no need for you to pay a middle man thousands of pounds to send someone completely untrained and unskilled out there and do a job a local person could be doing, just so they can have a holiday and be pious? Also somebody who can give more than two weeks, so the charity doesn’t have to keep retraining people, although this point is more relevant to people who go and volunteer at orphanages with vulnerable children who need stability but are met by a constantly changing stream of backpackers who go home and talk about how ‘hard’ it was.

    The companies rip people off, the people that do are either well meaning but ill informed or just doing it for themselves for life experience. There are plenty of volunteering opportunities in England that need people.

  2. avatar

    Hi Jenna,

    Yes, you are right. And my article was supposed to show that since coming back and researching I see that my time could have been much better spent as you say, either in a project more local, or if i had looked into volunteering more carefully. However, I was only 19 when I undertook this opportunity, and was naive and trusted the larger companies when i shouldn’t have.

    It wasn’t so much the fact that i had been ripped off that annoyed me, but the fact that Widecast could profit so much more as a charity had we gone to them first hand.

    In answer to your question about locals, Gandoca was a tiny village, all the locals that could have been employed there were, we didn’t take jobs away from anyone. And Widecast need the funding, however small, that comes from international volunteers like us. Also, if we had volunteered at a project like working in an orphanage or working with children in general, i completely agree that more than 2 weeks needs to be given. As it is, the turtles presumably don’t care who moves their eggs, as long as there are enough people to do it, so the high turnover of volunteers I don’t think really matters here.

    I did the volunteering as part of a 4 month trip around the world, I didn’t just fly out for the 2 weeks, so volunteering in England wouldn’t have been the same thing. I agree with you that international volunteering needs to be severely regulated and massively researched by those who want to take part, but I don’t think you can write it off as a waste of time. Since coming back, I have become a part of ‘Impact International’ committee, which is a group of us from all over the country who work together to pool information about responsible and worthwhile volunteering abroad, so that others can make more informed decisions than I did.

  3. avatar

    During my gap year I taught in primary schools in an Indian village for three weeks, also through RealGap. During my time there it soon became apparent the only benefactors from the project were myself and the organisations involved. I think it had an adverse effect on the children I was ‘teaching’. I was an untrained teenager who’s only qualification to teach these children was that I was western and had enough money to pay a volunteering organisation. The trained teachers at the school were sitting back and observing while we were doing all the work. How bad could this be for the children’s development? The only Caucasians they had ever met were teaching them while their Indian mentors were lazing around. It felt awfully colonial.

    In addition to this, three weeks is far from enough for this type of project. I imagine six months is the minimum to make any significant impact. Each volunteer before and after me who worked for three weeks each probably had exactly the same lesson plans and taught the same basic maths and English that I did. A lot more stability was needed to help the children develop these subjects.

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