Traveling can be an eye-opening experience for many people. Seeing first hand extreme poverty can leave you with a strong desire to do something, to make the world a better place. Take a look at how many international volunteer programs there are and you’ll have proof enough that the world is fill with incredible, big-hearted people. Voluntourism, the idea of combining travel with volunteering abroad, has become a very popular option and there are thousands of both free and paid volunteer programs available. Before you head out to “save the world” with one of these programs though, it is important to understand what volunteering abroad is really about.
Your desire to volunteer abroad is coming from a good place. You want to help a disadvantaged community and make the world a little bit better, in any small way you can. With the right program, you can do just that. Many programs ask you to raise funds for the project before you even leave home. This fundraising is both a way to collect money to help the cause but also a way to raise awareness of the issues.
If you have a particular skill set, volunteering abroad can be even more rewarding, both for you and the community you are helping. Doctors, nurses, and even medical students can make a real difference by volunteering in communities without proper medical facilities. Business owners and entrepreneurs are often welcomed to help mentor and teach youth to help drive them and their families out of poverty. There are countless volunteer programs out there but to make the most impact, you should seek out one where your skills are best utilized.
Unlike traveling, where you are confined to a tourist or backpackers view of the culture, volunteering allows you to connect with the people you are there to help on a more personal level. Rather than viewing these communities in a negative light, “Oh poor them,” you begin to make real connections that will stay with you forever. Often times, these personal connections are the most valuable to you in the end.
Before you jump on the Voluntourism bandwagon and book your trip, it is important to realize that not all volunteer abroad programs are created equal. They might have the right interests at heart but that doesn’t mean they are helping a community and in some cases volunteering can actually hurt a community.
First, make sure you sign up with a legitimate program. Many have been set up as businesses, rather than non-profits, and you will find that your program fee pays for the director’s luxury home rather than helping the local community.
Second, make sure your help really is making the best impact on the local local community. In some cases helping to build a library is a great mission but if the community is still suffering without running water, perhaps your time would be better spent on a well program. Or, if you are set to work “building a house” with no experience at all, how much is your work really contributing? In many cases, it would have been better to donate your money directly to the community so they could hire their own, experienced builders – providing both jobs and a new home.
While the majority of international volunteering programs are set up to help, whether they are successful at it or not, some programs are a scam from the very beginning. It is vital that you understand the consequences of a grow Voluntourism industry before you start volunteering abroad or you might be doing serious harm.
The worst offenders when it comes to fake and harmful volunteer programs usually use children to draw people in. Helping in an orphanage is a noble cause but be careful before you sign up. In some places, “orphanages” have been found that are actually filled with children bought from their parents for the day to attract travelers and their money. And if you do find a legitimate orphanage, consider the damage volunteer programs to the orphanage can do. Is the orphanage doing background checks on volunteers? Is the constant influx of travelers good on the children or just creating abandonment issues?
Volunteering abroad can be an amazingly rewarding experience but it is important you do your research and consider all sides of the equation before heading off.