Kathryn Liston - The Smarter Traveller

Consumer Expert & Globetrotter

Blog: Volunteering – is it ethical?

I had always wanted to volunteer abroad, hoping to to make a difference with people who were less fortunate than myself.

So, when Tourism Concern advertised a free conference on Ethical Volunteering, I jumped at the chance to attend and learn more about it for myself.

The day turned out to be an eye-opener. I didn’t realise there were so many pitfalls to be aware of, let alone ethical questions to ask myself such as why I wanted to volunteer in the first place. Here are the questions the Smarter Traveller should be asking. 

1: Does the money I am spending benefit the host community? 

There was lots of debate on whether the money volunteers spend would be better off used in recruiting a teacher for a school. This would bring real benefits to the community and be less disruptive for the children, who build a rapport with volunteers only to find they are leaving within a few weeks.

A study carried out by Leeds Beckett University, and published in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, found that the more expensive projects were likely to be the least responsible.

2: Why do I want to volunteer?

Many volunteers have unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve. Is it acceptable to teach school children, or build a well, if you have no teaching or building experience? Would that be acceptable in the UK? One volunteer said local people used to rebuild the well they were working on, which was demoralising.

3: Do I need to go overseas?

There are lots of rewarding volunteering opportunities in the UK, for example taking a vulnerable adult to the cinema in Croydon. Contact your local authority for details.

4. Would I contribute more by travelling ethically rather than joining a project, which may not pass on any of your money to the community?

Tourism Concern’s Ethical Travel Guide lists 400 places in more than 70 countries, such as the 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking. Its sister organisation, Empowering Women of Nepal ( EWN ) has trained nearly 1000 disadvantaged rural women to become trekking guides.

5. Am I flexible and open to change? 

The conditions in very poor areas will be extremely challenging and not what you are used to.

6. Am I willing to give local people time and to learn from them? 

Volunteers said it was just as important to learn from local people as to pass on their own experiences. Ensure it is a two-way process.

7. Do I know what the living conditions will be like? 

They can very often be extremely basic with several people sharing a bedroom.

8. Are the values and objectives of my chosen organisation compatible with my own?

What type of organisation is it? A charity, NGO (non-governmental organisation), profit making company? How do they work with the community? They should be able to tell you well in advance where you will be working.

9. How much training and support will I be given when I am there?

The work can be challenging so it is very important to feel that you are going to receive good support.

10. What’s it like to work there?

Talk to other volunteers who have worked for the organisation. Be suspicious of organisations which are reluctant to pass on names.

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