Imagine the scene: you’ve just moved into your new flat, and you’re meeting your flatmates for the first time. The talk turns to what you’ve spent your summer doing; most have either been working or enjoying their last months of freedom. Suddenly, someone pipes up that they spent their summer volunteering abroad. The inevitable jokes about ‘gap yahs’ and ‘finding yourself’ aside, the popularity of so-called ‘voluntourism’ has grown in recent years. University students are the perfect audience for companies to target; but is it really a good idea?
Google ‘volunteering abroad’ and you’re bombarded with websites offering opportunities all over the world—from Africa to South America to Asia, we’re not short of places to get that perfect Instagram shot. Recently, some of these destinations have come under fire for being less than ethical; Thailand, for example, has been criticised for encouraging tourists to ride their elephants despite the permanent damage it does to the elephant’s spine. Similarly, there have been reports of volunteering opportunities set up just to take advantage of rich tourists looking to gain some good karma and superiority; opportunities that don’t actually provide any benefit to the local economy or community, and may in fact damage it.
The perception that volunteering gives you that edge above others who haven’t, making volunteers more likely to be chosen for jobs in the future may have some truth. It’s important to stress to those thinking about volunteering that research is essential. Those who want to volunteer should research the organisation that they’re thinking of signing up with thoroughly. This involves more than just a Google search—previous volunteers recommend talking to others who have gone with the same company, to get a bit more of a sense of their aims or objectives. What did the company, ultimately, hope to achieve through organising these volunteering opportunities? This is particularly important if you want to volunteer with animals or conservation centres; it’s useful to find out about the treatment of the animals, and whether the animals are going to be released back into the wild or kept for tourism. A friend who has volunteered abroad said that researching the project that you would be expected to carry out whilst volunteering was also an important part of the choosing process. What sort of work would you be expected to do? How much free time to explore the area will you have? Take some time before you go to really think about what you want to achieve from your volunteering, and then tailor your research to this.
Despite all the doom and gloom about volunteering that make the headlines, many people have such positive experiences that they return, year on year, to carry on improving communities across the world. The friends that can be made through volunteering are often friends for life, regardless of nationality or age. It’s one of those unique situations where complete strangers come together in a different country just to help others.
Everyone who has had a positive volunteering experience has stressed how hard it is. They work long hours, in difficult and different environments, often with a lot of responsibility for the short time that they are volunteers. However, the skills they learn from their experience are invaluable, and set them above and apart from other people. Therefore, volunteering abroad doesn’t necessarily deserve the negative press it has. Volunteering itself doesn’t make you a better person. The skills and life lessons you learn through volunteering do, and that is not something achieved through your ‘voluntourism’ holidays.