Posted by WorkingAbroad Projects on Friday, 24th March 2017
Last month, I went to speak at the Compass Ethical Volunteering and Travel conference in Birmingham. It was the first of its kind and it gathered several great speakers from the volunteering and travel industry to speak about being ethical in our line of business. I was there to provide the perspective of WorkingAbroad, a volunteer organisation that has helped people from around the World to join volunteer programmes in the past 20 years. I was there to provide some insights on what future volunteers should look out for and ask themselves before choosing a volunteer project.
It is no secret that volunteering has in the past years grown substantially in popularity as a way of travelling and experiencing the world. This has been followed by an increasing number of companies and organisations, who are interested in offering people volunteering experiences. This also makes it harder for people to make the decision on where to travel and with whom. In 2015, the documentary “The Voluntourist” by Chloé Sanguinetti highlighted the importance of doing research and being critical when looking for a volunteer programme abroad. Is your presence doing more harm than good? This is the essential and most important question that you need to know the answer to, before spending your time and money on a volunteer programme.
Unfortunately, there are like in any other area of business, profit-greedy organisations and companies who are only interested in exploiting your good intentions for making money. They are the ones destroying the important work that other well-intentioned volunteer organisations and companies are part of. I met people at the conference, who had been scared off a bit with volunteering abroad, as the bad examples of being ripped off on a volunteer programme that had no clear purpose or structure to make a sustainable impact on the community, had imprinted on them. This was another reason for participating in this conference; to show that ethical volunteer programmes and companies do exist!
The BORN FREE Foundation was also part of the conference, who announced that they are at the moment working on a database for ethical travel and volunteering companies and organisations. “Animal Footprint” is the name of the database, which is soon to be launched. The purpose is for you as a traveller and volunteer to more easily find the places that are run ethically and sustainably; thus, making it easier for you to make an informed choice. Keep an eye out for it!
I recently read the book “Volunteer Voices” by Duncan McNicholl, who has many years of experience with development work in Africa, also as a volunteer. The book raises many important questions that former volunteers have realised upon reflection of their time volunteering and working with development. I recognised several of the questions, some which I realised while I was volunteering abroad, and others not until after I had arrived back home. This book thus provides anyone looking into volunteering, the insight from people with extensive volunteer and working experience in the development field. It will make you ask the right questions and make the considerations before you choose the programme to volunteer with abroad.
I volunteered in Ghana and Brazil for various durations at community development projects back in 2013. This was during a time where the notion of ethical tourism or questioning "voluntourism" hadn't really found its way. While I do remember asking myself questions about my work while volunteering, most of my reflections have come afterwards and in particular in recent years. Fortunately, upon this reflection, I don’t consider my time volunteering at the given programmes as harmful or unsustainable. In Ghana, my main purpose was to build libraries at schools in Kumasi and doing farmwork in the Northeast. While I questioned the organisation and effectiveness of my work when being there, I believe the creation of libraries anywhere in the World will only have a long term positive effect. In Brazil, I worked with children in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. I remember thinking at the time, if I was really making a difference with my presence there. As I gradually got to understand the purpose of the project, I realised that it was needed to secure a better future for the children. Once the children reach a certain age, in particular the boys, the drug lords from the larger neigbouring favela would come to recruit the them, while their parents were working. This project provided the children a place to go, while their parents were out working. You can read more about my time volunteering in Brazil here. I would advise anyone to carefully think about programmes involving children, in particular ones linked to work at orphanages. Be aware of the impact that you’ll have on the children while being there, and what you leave behind once leaving the project. I’ve also since learned how the volunteer company that I joined, operates and treats its local project partners, and thus now know the importance of choosing the right agency.
While working with children can have an impact on their learning and social capabilities, it’s not only in these areas that you need to be aware of the footprint you leave behind as a volunteer. In case you haven’t already watched the highly talked about documentary Blood Lions, you need to do so! It helped expose the cruel canned hunting industry in South Africa, and how trophy hunters from all over the World are paying large sums of money to kill lions bred for the purpose. It finally also made volunteers aware that petting and working with lion cubs have no sustainable or well-intentioned purpose. They are bred for the sole purpose of being shot by trophy hunters, and this will be their fate, as soon as tourists and volunteers find them too old and not cute enough to pet. You can read more about this from our blog "The Awful Business of Canned Hunting".
Any true wildlife sanctuary with predators will not allow interaction with them, and if so, will usually be very limited and by permanent staff. The main purpose of true sanctuaries is to re-introduce wildlife back into the wild. If this is not possible, the animals will spend the rest of their days at that sanctuary. This also means that no breeding will ever take place, as no sanctuary will ever continue the circle of breeding wildlife to stay in captivity; because what would the point be of having inbred animals unfit to be released in the wild? Volunteer programmes that have breeding and interaction with predators, in particular big cats, are only part of this for the money. It's a money machine that volunteers and tourists alike keep supporting, because who doesn't want to pet or walk with a cheetah? Don't do it! Only support true sanctuaries that work for the purpose of keeping wildlife wild. You should ask yourself - when has it ever been normal to pet, walk or interact with a dangerous wild animal? You are not Mowgli and this is not the Jungle Book!
This brings me back to my purpose of speaking at the conference in Birmingham. I advised the future travellers and volunteers listening, to ask the important questions and do the research. Like going to a new restaurant or buying a new product; the small investigator in you has to try and work out if it’s the right place or product to choose for the money you are paying. While this might seem like common sense, it is now more than ever the most important thing to do, as you can easily end up being part of the problem instead of the solution. You can find all of the questions, which we believe are important to ask the volunteer company that you’d like to volunteer with here, and also find our own answers to these.
In all, don't spend money on projects that you don't believe have a real and sustainable impact on the local community and/or wildlife. However, don’t let the bad stories scare you. Many projects around the World rely on the assistance from volunteers to keep doing what they do in the name of conservation and community development. Do your research and make informed choices. The experience of volunteering while travelling will most definitely change and enlighten you. You will be part of the difference that the project is trying to make during your time volunteering - just make sure that it's the right kind of change, and that you don't do more harm than good in the long run. In the end, YOU make the decision. Make sure that you will be part of the solution, and not part of the business of volunteering to make money on the cost of animals' and people’s lives and future.
Blog articles from our projects, volunteers in the field and the wider world are posted here.