Thinking About Volunteering Abroad? Read This First

Thinking About Volunteering Abroad? Read This First

It’s not just about the environment – sustainable travel is about eco-friendly habits and leaving a positive impact on the places we visit. The human side of sustainable travel addresses community impact. It’s about the social and economic components that travel companies use to promote their brand, whether they are actually sustainable or not. 

Companies aren’t the only ones to blame – travelers around the world continue to pet lions, ride elephants, and take cruises that harm the oceans. Without knowing it we wear lotions that aren’t reef-safe and sometimes disrespect local customs. Having a positive social impact when you travel means that we make an effort to maintain the dignity and longevity of the place we visit. 

One of the key ways foreign tour companies make travel unsustainable is by selling volunteer tourism, or voluntourism trips. Volunteering can be great, but there are certain criticisms of volunteering abroad that should be talked about.

“Voluntourism” is an overseas travel experience, typically for a charity, where the volunteer pays money to participate in short-term voluntary work overseas.

When I was 15 I participate in a two-week volunteer trip in Kenya. It seemed like an incredible opportunity to experience a completely different environment and a culture so different from the United States.

I was excited to travel to Africa without my family and do something meaningful. It made me feel so independent at a time when I was too young to travel on my own. At the same time, I was nervous about being someplace with such a different lifestyle, but I was ready for the challenge and adventure. Oh and did I mention the trip cost 7000 USD?

I arrived at JFK airport to meet my fellow volunteers; bright eyed and bushy-tailed and nervous as heck. The first thing I noticed was that all of my new friends had fancy new backpacks, expensive cameras, and they were all from California. They seemed quite nonchalant about the trip, whereas I was freaking out and ecstatic. I even had an extra suitcase filled with books and art supplies to give the children when I arrived (a little cringe-y and cliché looking back).

I went to Kenya to learn about a foreign culture, yet I found myself navigating a different culture before the plane even took off. Most of the other teenagers were doing this to fulfill a community service requirement, whereas I had gathered up my life savings (although mostly from Grandma’s birthday gifts, I’ll be honest) to pay for the trip.

There are criticisms of volunteering abroad because short-term volunteering comes at a cost – both to the individuals and communities being served. 

Let me go back – my trip was operated through an agency based in California that sends teenagers to serve in low-resource communities. It sounds great, but there are some not-so-good consequences hidden beneath. 

There’s an old saying, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” 

Development projects often involve foreign companies giving resources (fish) instead of helping communities sustain themselves (teaching them to fish). Companies that charge a high price to volunteer are often not supporting the local economy, they are funneling volunteers’ money for themselves to make a large profit.

The simplest example (it’s not always like this) is when outside organizations donate school books or build a school. Volunteers feel like they are having a really positive impact, yet they don’t see what happens once they board the plane back to their families. 

This approach doesn’t give communities the tools to create and utilize resources themselves. What is more, short-term volunteering can lead to a kind of superficial involvement from volunteers. They are only invested for a few weeks before returning home.

I am not trying to discourage people from pursuing meaningful, memorable adventures.

This is not about deterring the student who has always dreamed of traveling abroad, or the retiree who just wants to try something new. There’s nothing wrong with wanting and pursuing a deeper travel experience. It’s just important to be aware of the criticisms of volunteering abroad. Get educated before spending lots of money on a trip that might not have a completely positive output.

Projects that outsource materials from far away and don’t utilize local knowledge or skills is not sustainable in the long term.

And volunteering should be accessible to everyone, not just an expensive activity for the privileged.

Basically, I wish the nuance of volunteering abroad had been discussed with me before I went abroad at 15. We never talked about what would happen when we left the project unfinished. I didn’t think about whether the expensive paint we were using or the composite wood desk materials were sustainable. 

If you are paying to participate in voluntourism learn about the political, social, economic and cultural history of where you are working. Ask yourself where your money is going and trace the impact of your work. Travel companies can help, too, by having greater financial accountability and transparency. 

We can’t be afraid to make mistakes because there is always an opportunity to learn from them. We also need to be honest with ourselves about why we travel or volunteer. The reality is that travel has always been more about ourselves than about anyone else. And volunteering isn’t so different. In addition to your very valid desire to do good, think critically about your motivations for helping, what you have to offer, and who is benefitting from your experience.

Want to know more tips for traveling abroad? Check out these travel resources. 

And as always,

Keep exploring,


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