The do-good dilemma

How do you find an ethical operator and project to ensure you're doing more good than harm? We look at the questions potential volunteers should be asking

By Sam Lewis
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:22 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 15:03 BST
Image: The Great Projects

Few would argue that travellers who volunteer abroad want to make a positive contribution. Some might say their altruism is mixed, in part, with self interest, tinged with idealism, or underpinned by obligation or guilt. But motives aside, the bigger ethical issue is surely: what are the ramifications of their work, and where is their money going? Would it be better, in fact, to stay at home?

Growing up, most of the volunteers I knew were teachers, nurses and doctors who travelled with nonprofit charities or nongovernmental organisations. Today, practically anyone can volunteer abroad and there are hundreds of organisations that will happily place them. According to Amnesty International, the volunteering industry is worth around $11bn a year, with the largest organisations generating up to $20m a year.

Raising money for a good cause has become a commercial enterprise — and that means those in need aren't the only ones who are benefitting.

Ruth Taylor, international steering committee member for interagency initiative Better Volunteering, Better Care, says: "Volunteering abroad is big business and it's important to ask yourself whether, as an industry, we're making money from poverty."

Of course, in an ideal world, as a volunteer I'd want 100% of my money to go to charity. But as a realist, I know that some of it will pay for my food, travel and administration costs, and a percentage will also go to the organisation to pay salaries — with some taking more than others. Even Amnesty International has come under fire on this count. The Sun called out the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation for allegedly paying its secretary general, Salil Shetty, around £200,000 a year (although it should be noted that this sum is comparable to other NGO senior executives roles).

Beside the issue of how much money is or isn't finding its way to a particular project, there's the question of whether the project is actually necessary. Does it have a long-term, sustainable goal? Are there likely to be any negative consequences?

With hundreds of organisations clamouring to take paying volunteers, anyone interested clearly has a responsibility to research not only the organisation but to ask pertinent questions about the project they'll be working on. Transparency surrounding the impact of the placement and volunteers' money should be a prerequisite for signing up to a volunteering scheme.

A key consideration, too, is what a volunteer wants from the experience. The boundary between holidaying and volunteering has become blurred — some volunteer programmes even involve sightseeing or beach time. Such trips are often labelled with the derisory portmanteau 'voluntourism'. Hratche Koundarjian, global media manager at VSO, says: "Our volunteers don't have tourist experiences. We don't arrange tours or sightseeing opportunities. Our placements aren't holidays, they're an opportunity to contribute to a properly planned, long-term international development programme. Our volunteers can find their placements enjoyable — but they're also demanding."

Does this mean that international volunteering opportunities that structure themselves around an element of travel and tourism alongside a stint of charitable activity are wrong or simply ineffective?

It seems most people on a voluntourism project want a balance between work and free time spent exploring the location. Ridhi Patel, founder of Volunteering Journeys, says volunteers can have the best of both worlds, providing they choose a project wisely. She cites wildlife data-collection initiatives as one such example.

Whatever your stance on this, it's clear that every volunteer — whether a full-time charity worker or voluntourist — needs to do some careful research and background checks before they embark on a trip if they really want to make a positive difference.

What length of time do I need to volunteer for to make a worthwhile difference?

While you might struggle to believe that volunteers can make a huge difference in a week, some long-term projects can be achieved via short-term placements, according to Sarah Faith, marketing manager at Responsible Travel — although she admits they're "a bit more elusive". She points to conservation projects involving collecting observational data — for example, whale and dolphin research projects in Italy's Ligurian Sea, and an initiative in Belize, where volunteers help clear invasive lion fish from reefs on dive expeditions.

Other organisations demand volunteers commit to a minimum length of time. But whatever the timescale, volunteers eventually go home, which poses questions. As Better Volunteering, Better Care's Ruth Taylor points out: "Think what happens to the work that the volunteers have been doing. Does it just stop? Is it handed over to local people? The best way to ensure a project is sustainable is for the organisation to have a long-standing relationship with the local community, which brings volunteers in to add capacity where needed and has clear exit strategies for when volunteers are no longer being sent."

What's the goal?

Time isn't the only factor that determines if a project is worthwhile. Taylor says: "Too often, placements are set up that are heavily driven by the volunteer-sending organisation and what it thinks its customers (i.e. volunteers) would be most interested in. As well as being unethical and immoral — forcing projects on communities that don't want or need them — it also exploits the good will of those who wish to volunteer overseas."

Remember that commercial operators, unlike charities, don't need to prove to the Charity Commission that they're providing a benefit. Volunteers must do their own research to ensure a project meets real needs and is designed in collaboration with local partners that understand the local communities.

Speak to people who've been away with the organisation before and are enthusiastic ambassadors for the programme. Online forums and independent review sites (such as Volunteer Forever and Go Overseas) are useful for determining whether you can make a difference. Check to see how long the organisation has been running and what it's achieved so far and whether its work is sustainable.

I'm not a skilled professional, will I have a negative impact?

There are some organisations — notably VSO — that only recruit professional volunteers with specific skills, while most, including at Volunteering Journeys, advise checking to see if you have the necessary qualifications for the project. As Amnesty International points out: "If you've never built a well in the UK, chances are you can't build one in Uganda and qualified Ugandan builders would do a better job." Unfortunately, it says, there are too many examples of unqualified young volunteers being sent to build schools, which qualified local builders have then had to knock down and rebuild.

Most ethical operators should interview volunteers to find out what they can and can't do and place them accordingly.

On the flip side, Hands Up Holidays (providing luxury volunteer trips for families) says a 'philanthro-volunteering' model is another way of contributing. Hill says: "The main benefit our clients bring is the funding they provide, which we use to hire local experts who do most of the work, with our clients getting involved as much as they feel able, overseen and assisted by our local experts."

Where is my money going and how much should I pay?

You need to be realistic — not all of a volunteer's payment will be given to local communities; a proportion will be absorbed by running costs and salaries. Volunteers should ask for clarification on the exact percentage. That said, how do you know if you're getting an honest answer?

With a lack of regulation, it's a tricky one — as is the amount you should pay, with volunteer placements varying hugely from a few-hundred pounds to over £5,000. "Generally, the more expensive the placement, the less ethical it is," says Taylor.

That theory is supported by a report published in 2014 by Leeds Metropolitan University. It found there was an inverse relationship between cost and quality, with voluntourism organisations with the most expensive products tending to be the least responsible.

Should I avoid volunteer projects with children?

In 2013, Responsible Travel stopped providing volunteer orphanage packages, and many other organisations have followed suit. Most travel bodies, including ABTA and VSO, discourage volunteers from working at orphanages. VSO's Hratche Koundarjia says: "Research has found volunteering in orphanages can be psychologically and emotionally detrimental to children, and the demand for voluntary placements could mean that more children end up in orphanages, despite having families at home that are likely to be able to care for them."

Volunteers can help, however, by supporting permanent staff in such establishments — or by finding other opportunities to work with children. Oyster Worldwide, for example, runs a scheme providing extra-curricular sports coaching to kids in townships in Brazil and South Africa. Volunteers should expect a criminal background check before working with kids.

I want to work with wild animals — how do I ensure the establishment is a genuine centre for conservation?

Most operators recommend that volunteers ask questions. There are certain warning signs to look out for — if the company says it works with 'orphaned' lion cubs or offers rides on elephants, for example. "If they do, stay away," advises Vicky McNeil, director at Working Abroad. "There are many inappropriate projects out there where volunteers pet wild animals and bottle-feed or 'cuddle a cub', before they're transferred to fenced parks for 'canned hunting', where wealthy foreign trophy hunters can shoot them easily as they're not afraid of humans and can't escape due to relatively small enclosures."

McNeil adds there are exceptions, including a wildlife rehabilitation centre where a trained wildlife vet is present and where some interaction with injured animals may be essential, and so is actively encouraged.

Meanwhile, ABTA's senior sustainable tourism executive Hugh Felton points out: "Any legitimate sanctuary should have a no-breeding policy and any contact should be clearly demonstrated to be in the best interests of the animal."

More info

Published in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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