Volunteers urged to think first

<em>Illustration: michaelmucci.com</em>
Illustration: michaelmucci.com

With voluntourism a growing industry, new guidelines emphasise the need to put communities, not travellers, first.

When it comes to volunteering, it's not about what makes you feel good. That's the underlying message of a new set of guidelines for the burgeoning voluntourism industry, in which travel combines with volunteer work.

The needs and wishes of the recipient community must be the first priority and there are many situations when volunteering is not appropriate, according to the International Voluntourism Guidelines, released this week by The International Ecotourism Society and the Planeterra Foundation.

While it might make you feel good to go and entertain orphans for a couple of weeks or give a few English lessons in an overseas school, it may not be the best thing for those on the receiving end.

As previously reported in this column, there are growing concerns about a lack of scrutiny and measurement of voluntourism, as more commercial tour operators enter what was previously the realm of non-profit organisations.

Industry leaders believe some operators are jumping on the bandwagon to profit from travellers' good intentions and it is time to look where the sector is heading.

A key player in the development of the guidelines was Megan Epler Wood, a co-executive director of the Planeterra Foundation, a non-profit organisation created by the tour operator G Adventures.

Epler Wood says the guidelines, produced by an international panel of responsible tourism experts, are a major piece of work but just the first step in improving standards.

It is too early to say if the sector needs an accreditation scheme but there is certainly more work to be done, she says.

Aside from putting communities' needs ahead of travellers' wants, a key recommendation of the guidelines is that projects should be focused on long-term benefits and sustainability, not quick changes.

"For instance, once the road has been built, who will maintain it?" the guidelines say.

Volunteer programs should be introduced only when there has been a thorough analysis of alternatives and should where possible include an exit strategy, with the local community replacing a reliance on outside skills.

Epler Wood says travellers looking at volunteer programs should ask questions such as how the project started, why it is needed, how long it has been running and what it has achieved.

There should be evidence of "accomplishments that are changing over time" rather than the same thing being done over again.

"The work you are doing should be part of something bigger for that community," she says.

"We need to put our excitement and our own needs aside and think about what that community's needs are and how we fit into that."

Epler Wood says one of the most important questions travellers should ask is what percentage of the money they are paying is going into the project.

While the measurement of voluntourism is more complicated than dollar values, the guidelines say operators should calculate and report the amount of money for each trip that goes into the project.

Travellers often ask why they should pay to volunteer their time, and more transparency on where the money goes will lead to greater understanding of how voluntourism works, the guidelines say.

Epler Wood says another way for travellers to assess an operator is to look at what training and pre-trip briefings they provide to ensure volunteers understand the project and any cultural sensitivities.

"You need to make sure you're not just going to be dropped off at the project," she says.

Asked when volunteer projects are not appropriate, Epler Wood says she has seen many examples where communities have not been comfortable with the concept.

"Sometimes their whole concept of charity can be very different," she says. "There can also be unintended implications of a community needing assistance when they don't want it. Sometimes we have attitudes that don't converge with what the local needs are. They see it as being looked down upon."

Looking ahead, Epler Wood says voluntourism is still evolving and could morph into something else.

While "experiential" travel and the opportunity to interact with communities are very positive aspects of tourism, there are other ways to achieve that.

"It doesn't have to be through volunteering," she says.

Profit is OK

While commercial operators are often seen as the bad guys of voluntourism, we don't need to write them off.

The voluntourism guidelines state that volunteer programs can be part of for-profit operations so long as the core objective is to meet the needs of the local community.

Megan Epler Wood of the Planeterra Foundation says "best practice" commercial operators were among those who contributed to the voluntourism guidelines.

Travellers need to do their own research and ask questions to determine the quality of various programs, she says.

This story Volunteers urged to think first first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.