Hanoi, Vietnam – Voluntourism. The word and the concept – to volunteer while on holiday abroad – has the world of travel abuzz and the world of non profits seething. Open any Lonely Planet travel guide, and you’ll probably come across at least a small section on how to volunteer while vacationing to gain a more “real” experience with the country’s culture and people. Go on a travel forum discussing voluntourism and you would think the world is coming to an end because some kid on his or her gap year wants to travel and volunteer. Considering I’ll be voluntouristing (not sure if that’s word, but I’m running with it) in Vietnam, I thought I would share my thoughts, viewpoint, and expectations on the eve of my start date and see how they change by the end of my time here.
So, first a little background. As I mentioned above, the voluntourism concept is exactly as it sounds. Now, there are two ways to go about it: 1) Contact the organization you want to volunteer with (typically a local NGO) yourself and organize your own activities, flights and transportation, room, and meals, or 2) Contact a placement organization that will that will place you with a local NGO and provide a room and meals for a fee (you still pay for your flight). Considering the immense amount of time required to research all the NGOs and non profit organizations in any given country or city, most voluntourists choose option number two.
So, what’s the big deal? Why is voluntourism such a divisive topic? Well, it seems opponents believe it’s a scam (they believe you shouldn’t have to pay to volunteer), a voluntourist won’t have any impact in such a short amount of time, you end up doing more harm than good, and the voluntourist is only doing it for the glory and to satisfy their ego so they can sleep better at night and look good in front of their friends when they go home (the whole,”Look at me, I’m such a good person because of what I did while on holiday” spin). Proponents seem to believe that something is better than nothing, volunteering in any form can only be a good thing, and at least a portion of the fees they pay to the placement organization go to the local NGO. *Editor’s note – I culled these arguments from various travel and volunteer forums on the internet while researching and planning my trip – and of course everything on the internet is true. So, take the above paragraph and arguments for what you think it’s worth.
Going off my own experience, working with a placement organization requires less time and provides a certain level of comfort in knowing there’s a support structure in place to help me through the planning process and the time that I’m actually in the country volunteering. I don’t mind paying a small fee for meals and a place to stay (I mean, I’d have to anyway). As for the scam part, well, there are horror stories out there about people showing up and either not having a volunteer placement or being placed on a project that is different from what they signed up for. Just goes to show that, as with anything, you need to do your research to insure to the best of your ability that the organization is legit. I basically picked the one (International Volunteer HQ) with the most positive and least negative reviews.
As for a voluntourist’s impact, I think anyone who thinks they’re going to change the world in a few short weeks is fooling themselves. And, I would argue that doing something is better than nothing, as long as that something is positive and sustainable. But, to say all voluntourists are doing more harm than good is debatable. To be sure there are reports of orphanages cropping up in many places at an alarming rate to take advantage of the voluntourism industry at the expense of the children, and there is probably a greater need in many areas to build schools and provide quality education for free rather than teaching English. However, if you can keep a child off the streets and brighten his/her life during the time you’re there, it may not be much, but it is still a positive impact. Plus many local NGOs lack the business knowledge and expertise to complete their mission. So, you might be able to help them write a grant request, point out some best practices in book keeping, or do something as simple as helping them create a budget – provided you have some experience in the area of business management and know what you’re doing.
For the feel good stuff, I hate to break it to everyone, but there is no such thing as a selfless act. Even if it’s simply personal satisfaction, every volunteer is in it for themselves to some extent. And those fees you think are going to the local NGO? They’ll probably see a fraction of the money, if any, after the placement organization takes their cut, the local staff are paid and your housing and food are paid for (not to mention other handouts, depending on local ‘customs’). It’s just the way international aid and the world works these days. But, it’s not all bad. The local NGO does receive some marketing and exposure. And, the cultural interactions that take place help to tear down barriers and stereotypes – which ultimately creates better world citizens. Plus, the volunteer might go home, share their experiences, and inspire others to travel. Or, become inspired by their experiences to spend their life trying to change the world for the good. I don’t think any of that can be bad.
So, what are my expectations? Ultimately, it’s all about me. Sounds selfish, I know. But, since I won’t really be able to make much of a long term impact in six weeks I feel that I need to focus on getting as much out of the experience as I can (both personally and professionally). Any long term impact I make will most likely be of the cross cultural variety, which still isn’t a bad thing. Anything else that either side gets out of this experience – whether short or long term – will be pure gravy.