"Peru is one of the poorest countries in South America. […] With more than 1 in 10 people suffering from malnutrition, an illiteracy rate of 9.5% and an infant mortality rate above 30%, needs are great, and help from our volunteers is especially appreciated. Your trip will also be an opportunity to discover the fascinating culture of a country that combines indigenous and Mestizo roots, the pre-Columbian wonders of the Sacred Valley and breath-taking scenery."
Want to lift a South American country out of poverty in 3 weeks, proudly don a T-shirt baring the word "Volunteer", dance the salsa and take a boat trip on Lake Titicaca? Good news: it comes as a ready-made package, offered by Projects Abroad for around 3000 euros (air fares not included).
Since 1992, the organisation has sent around 10,000 people to destinations across all 5 continents. The 30 or so countries on offer are mostly in the developing world. The numerous destinations are displayed on their site alongside seductive photos – Costa Rica, Bolivia, Senegal, Madagascar, Cambodia and Fiji, to name but a few.
Thanks to its well-established local networks, Projects Abroad can send you overseas at any time of the year, on any mission you desire: building a library, giving lessons in an orphanage, or even more serious missions such as defending human rights or practicing dentistry. Your skill level doesn't matter – motivation is the most important thing. You’ll gain experience on the ground working with locals who benefit from your expertise.
Construction work and safari trips
What could be more generous than travelling to a developing country to offer your time and services for free? In reality, many young people with good intentions are falling into a trap. Torn between the desire to have an out-of-the-ordinary experience, a wish to travel, and a natural sense of altruism, they are prepared to pay for a trip that offers them all three things at the same time.
"When it comes to Projects Abroad, we’re dealing with an organisation which effectively has no name," explains Pierre de Hanscutter, director of Service Volontaire International in Brussels, "It feeds young people's dreams and keeps things vague. They use terms like non-political, humanitarian organisation, NGO… in reality, it’s a business; and you are the customer. The price serves to reassure candidates, and their parents too. They believe they’re doing something serious that comes with a quality guarantee."
What happens once they arrive? Barely any of the money they have paid goes to the local project associated with the trip. When contacted, the organisation has their explanations ready – organisational costs, paying the support team, etc. One thing is certain, volunteers work and are provided with accommodation.
But opinions vary. Amy*, a future primary school teacher, came back enthusiastic from her mission teaching English in Peru: "This country was my El Dorado for two months. I wanted an experience that would give me the kind of skills that can’t be taught in a classroom. I went with very basic grammar and vocabulary, which I taught through activities and games. You always need to use creativity to capture their attention!"
Pippa, a young American who loves travelling, has a different perspective on her two weeks spent in Tanzania: "The goal of our trip was to build a library, but we knew absolutely nothing about the basics of construction. So, every night, the workers would take down our bricks and start the work over again. In the morning, we wouldn’t notice what had happened. We spent the second week on safari."
Projects Abroad shows you how it all really works
Pippa points out the main problem with many of the volunteers – they lack skills. She feels embarrassed by it: "We bring in these barely formed young people so that they can learn on location. Everything is designed for them."
This is the much vaunted trademark of Projects Abroad, but one which can have serious consequences: "There are people in their first year of medicine who go out there to gain experience," Pierre explains, "Total novices performing stitches and delivering babies! What European country would allow that?" To the volunteer, however, it’s a worthwhile experience to put on a CV.
Even when volunteers are skilled, their very presence can have consequences for local employment. Pippa asks the question: "If a school can get foreign volunteers to come and teach, what incentive does it have to train and hire local teachers? This widespread system has a big impact on the growth and independence of communities to which the volunteers are sent."
This is, in other words, the exact opposite of the intended goal. This setup also affects the pupils negatively because they see a succession of new volunteers in their classrooms week after week, and they have to adapt to a new personality and a new programme each time.
Wanting to help is therefore not enough. "Despite all the best intentions in the world, harm is being done," Pierre says, "Many young people want something cool, something off the beaten track. They don’t realise that they’re turning volunteering projects into zoo trips."
A portmanteau of the words "volunteer" and "tourism", the term "voluntourism" encompasses wildly different scenarios: from the naïve youth, to the future professional, to the adventurer looking for an amazing experience. All are characterised by a misunderstanding of volunteering and a detrimental impact on local societies.
Step by Step
Can there then be such a thing as "good" volunteering? "One mustn't dream of volunteering too far away, too fast," explains Frédérique Williame from France Volontaires, "You have to take it a step at a time. There are many 2 to 3 week construction projects for young people in France. You're a volunteer and you meet people from different backgrounds – you're going to leave a lasting impact."
Helping young people to stand on their own two feet is what Service Volontaire International is about for its director: "A successful project means doing something long term – learning something and then giving back in one’s own community. It’s a citizens’ tool and it has a purpose. You have to ask yourself the right questions and know when to stand back."
That means avoiding offers which seem too enticing. Without even becoming a volunteer, there’s a lot that the ordinary traveller can do. "If you’re wondering what you can do to help, buy local," concludes Pippa, "Stay with local people or in a local hotel, eat at the restaurant on the corner and buy things in small shops. That way, you’re putting money into the local economy. You’re allowing the community to grow and develop in its own way."
* Name has been changed.