Volunteering while you’re traveling is a great way to see a country – be it the one where you live or one that you’re visiting. Obviously it’s a great way to meet local people and learn a bit more about the local culture, community, countryside etc.

A couple of recent experiences as a voluntourist over the summer break by Charlie, Member Capability Coordinator at Volunteer Wellington, highlighted some of the potential pitfalls of voluntourism.

The first experience was to work on the construction of an eco-house. The gig was promoted as a live-in, hands-on workshop for people wanting to learn more about eco-building. As a ‘workshop’ there was a charge – $350 per week for food and tutelage / guidance. Participants would live on-site in tents, campervans and the like while they learn about—and ultimately construct—an eco-house. Upon receipt of my money (over $1000!) the organisers sent a confirmation email with details about the workshop, what to bring and the working conditions. What stood out for me was that we would be working six days a week and on the seventh day, the one day of rest, we would not be given any food. As we were working in a remote, rural setting and I don’t own a car, I was unsure how I was meant to feed myself on the seventh day, having spent the rest of the week working to build the family’s house.

Perhaps given where I work, I thought this was unacceptable and so I withdrew from the workshop / volunteering stint three weeks before I was intended to begin working on-site. To make matters worse, I was initially charged a 15% cancellation fee amounting to $150! There was no cancellation policy and it was only as a result of numerous texts back and forth over a number of weeks that I was able to negotiate the admin fee down to $75. A fee that to me still seemed rather steep given I had provided three weeks’ notice of my decision to withdraw from the placement.

With a few weeks’ leave from work booked in and my plans for the eco-build falling through I decided to do some wwoofing instead. On reflection, this was perhaps a bit more aligned with my expectations in the first place. The basic deal is that you live and work on a family’s farm. In exchange for working 4-5 hours a day, the hosts provide you with food, lodgings and education in organic farming practices.

I’m pleased to say that my first week was a huge success! I landed with a couple that had been living on their land for over 25 years during which time they had converted bare paddocks and gorse-covered hillside into a bird-filled oasis of predominantly regenerating native bush. The work was fun, rewarding, educational and well appreciated by the owners. They treated me as a part of the family, fed me like a king and we formed a wonderful friendship that I hope to maintain into the future!

Sadly my second week was not such a success. The accommodation was cramped – I was sharing a room with two young German tourists and a French couple were said to be arriving the next night to share our bare-earth room. The food was suspect – I saw piles of (nearly rotten) vegetables that had obviously been the discards at the end of the local veggie market day and the farm was, in my opinion, a shambles. When I saw the host feeding her young chickens left over deep-fried chicken I knew this was not the place for me and I asked if I could be dropped at the local bus stop having stayed only one night!

The reason I relay these stories is to highlight some of the potential pitfalls of voluntourism so that others can learn from my mistakes. A few tips I have for those venturing out to explore our beautiful country (or other lands) as a volunteer are:
– get full information about the working conditions before you register / sign up / pay any money! For WWOOFing the standard practice is 4-5 hours per day so clarify this with the host before you arrive as well as an indication of the work you will be doing. There is always a lot of different work to do on a farm, but at some times of year there are specific tasks that need to be done so it’s best to make sure you’re willing to do the work the hosts intend for you to do! When you arrive at the farm, clarify working conditions, expectations etc – this is just like any other volunteer role where you should be inducted to the organisation, given information about work, expectations, breaks, risks, health and safety etc.
– If you are paying for your experience, ask to see the cancellations policy prior to any money changing hands – they may not have one, but it doesn’t need to be anything onerous, just an indication of what happens if your plans change or if for any reason you can no longer make it.
– If the working / living conditions are not to your liking you have every right to leave – speak up and don’t put up with a sub-standard situation. You’re a volunteer, not a slave!
– If you have a good experience at a farm, ask the hosts if they can recommend any other farms to work on. Rural communities are tight-knit and people generally know what’s happening around the area or have heard stories (both good and bad!) from other volunteers so tap into that local knowledge.
– Make sure someone else knows where you are – this is just like tramping in NZ’s bush, tell someone your plans and when they can expect to hear from you next.

There are no doubt numerous other things to consider and do as a voluntourist, but this was just some of the key points that came from my recent experience. If you have any advice to share, please add it in the comments section below.

Finally, I would encourage community organisations to consider how they can engage tourists and short-term volunteers in their work. Generally the intentions behind voluntourism are positive – to contribute to the local community – but, as with everything, the devil is in the detail!

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One response »

  1. Sue Hine says:

    A salutary lesson for all of us – thank you Charlie. I know of plenty of tales like yours. And this morning I was reading an article on ’empathy(don’t know how I found it) which contained the following:

    Even “experts” from a well-intentioned nonprofit can get it wrong. They’ll land in a poverty-stricken community and start building schools, flying in foreign volunteer teachers, donating truckloads of school supplies and shipping in biweekly deliveries of grain. But in trying to end the cycle of poverty, the organization only creates another devastating cycle–one of dependency.

    That’s another sort of voluntourism that can go horribly wrong.

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