The idea of getting to travel while "doing good" seems like the best of both worlds. The trend of volunteer tourism, or "voluntourism" emerged out of the ecotourism boom in the '90s.
While voluntourists laud voluntourism programs for the valuable experiences they have, some criticize many aspects of volunteer tourism.
Issues Associated With Voluntourism
Voluntourists often have very limited ability to alleviate systemic problems, and the short-term support they provide is widely varying in effectiveness and quality.
No matter how much voluntourists want to help people or how hard they're willing to work, they are often not in a position where they are able to make systemic changes. It is hard for them to do anything significant to alleviate poverty or provide support for vulnerable children.
Many voluntourists are high school, college, or university students. While their desire to help people is admirable, they often do not have the skills that are relevant to the specific needs of the peoples they visit.
For example, there are programs that send med-school hopefuls to remote villages who do not have access to dental care. While these voluntourists go to these villages with the best intentions, what these remote people need are real dentists for long-term care, not a revolving door of people without medical training.
Voluntourists can also inadvertently perpetuate patronizing unhelpful ideas to peoples in need. While wanting to help is admirable, voluntourism perpetuates an idea of a "needy" or "third-world" country as in need of saving by the West. An American teenager flying over to Africa to try and eliminate hunger is just as ineffective as a Kenyan teenager coming to the U.S. to solve gun violence.
Many voluntourism companies have a religious aspect. While religion can be a powerful motivator for helping others, some of these groups focus more on spreading their beliefs than providing help.
In order to volunteer abroad ethically and effectively, consider the following when planning your trip:
Consider Your Skills
What industries do you have training in? What kind of experience do you have? What would you be good at doing?
If you are a teacher, you could spend a year at a school in a place with low literacy rates.
If you work in construction, you could help rebuild homes in a country damaged by flooding.
If you are a receptionist, you could do office work at a charity providing relief somewhere abroad.
If you like to sew, you could join a nonprofit making mosquito nets for malaria-affected regions.
These are just many examples of how almost anyone could find something they can do to help within their skill range.
Plan For Long Term
The most effective help will be consistent. Consider setting aside a few months or even a year to make a lasting impact.
Spending a longer amount of time means you will be more fully immersed in the culture, giving you an authentic and unforgettable experience you will cherish for the rest of your life.
Get To Know The Community
Spend as much time as you can learning about the community you are volunteering in and spending time with people. Enjoy the valuable experience of meeting new people and sharing in their culture.
Find out what locals are doing to work on problems in the community. See what kind of resources and assistance they may need, and offer help if you're able.
Think About The Impact Of Your Trip
Will your help make an impact on the root of a problem? Avoid work that focuses on the symptoms of a systemic issue and ignores the causes of the problem.