For some of us, kicking back at an all-inclusive resort, rubbing elbows with tourists and souvenir shopping hardly represents the ideal way to use our vacation days. If you’re the adventurous type seeking a genuine cultural experience you may want to seriously consider international volunteer work. Recently the term voluntourism has gained popularity but it’s also drawn the ire of international development critics. There’s no foul in wanting to lend a particular skill-set in an act of humility but some practices result in better outcomes for locals long after you have come and gone. Travelers wanting to help should not be discouraged by critics, however it is increasingly necessary to vet and review the organizations that are selling voluntourism packages.
To help, we have found 5 projects that are creating truly inspirational volunteer-travel collaborations. They are inspirational in terms of sustainability and scope, but also because they involve projects that rewards participants with a deep pool of cultural knowledge and connection to the world around them.
Category: Ecology, Coastline Clean up, Crosion Restoration, Reforestation
Seeds is a voluntourism group that hosts short-term ecological research and environmental work around Iceland. The country is renowned for its natural beauty; however the fragility of it all is something that is often glossed over to the visiting traveler. Through Seeds, not only can travelers get an idea of just how much help Iceland needs, but they can actually do something about it. Voluntourists are always in demand to help researchers with ecological research, the kind of research that helps identify potential problems before they become real issues, or to help fix Iceland’s current environmental problems. Volunteers that are ready to get their hands dirty are put to work cleaning up coastlines, restoring and controlling erosion, reforestation and community building renovations.
As these projects are offered all around Iceland, visitors can get a unique taste of different parts of the country and the work makes it so, that visitors of any skill level can enjoy volunteering.
Trama Textiles – Women’s Weaving Cooperative, GUATEMALA
Category: Trade, Textiles
Every voluntourist wants to be helpful wherever they go, but to learn a new skill? Well, that’s just an added bonus. Trama Textiles in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala has a mission to create work at fair wages for the women of Guatemala so that they can honorably support their families while preserving cultural traditions. However, while they are doing good work, they can’t do it alone. This is an organization that has a need for volunteers to help with fundraising, recruiting, selling their goods and providing technical support. Trama provides work for over 400 women and their families, across five regions in Guatemala’s Western highlands. Volunteers will work at the Trama office in the centre of Xela (Quetzaltenango), which is the second largest city in Guatemala. Voluntourists will be treated to gaining new marketable skills from helping these women as well as learning about the beautiful art of traditional Mayan weaving. Volunteering through small local craft cooperatives is quickly becoming the ethical form of voluntourism, where both the local business and the visiting volunteer benefit from the experience equally. We wonder if it was a voluntour who helped set up the Trama Textiles Etsy store: https://www.etsy.com/shop/TramaTextiles
Volunteer Action for CAMBODIA
Category: Fundraising, Proposal & Grant Writing, Reporting
Cambodia is a touchy topic in the world of voluntourism. The small nation’s poor reputation developed after it was discovered that orphanages had been used to attract the do-gooder foreign volunteers to the struggling country, with many of the orphans not actually being orphans at all but children taken away from parents. One should still be wary of volunteering at orphanages in Cambodia, but there are still ways that the charitable traveler can help.
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia with few employment opportunities for children when they grow up. Instead of trying to help the poverty-stricken, volunteers can help them help themselves. Volunteer Action for Cambodia as well as several other non-profit organizations and NGOs are in desperate need for volunteers to help with micro-financing and business development options. While tasks like proposal writing, checking and writing reports and visiting sites to oversee implementation of micro-credit might not seem like the most exciting voluntourism opportunity, there is nothing more crucial to the population and no bigger way to make an impact during a visit to Cambodia. Alternatively, grass-root projects such as Joe-To-Go and Beau Fou (boutique) are small businesses that exist to train and employ Cambodian youth. The proceeds go to supporting The Global Child School. Travelers interested in volunteering with either three can find more information here: http://www.theglobalchild.org/volunteer.html
Wildlife ACT, SOUTH AFRICA
Category: Zoology, Wildlife, Study, Conservation
Wildlife ACT is the kind of organization that you want to volunteer for, especially if out in the wild is where your heart lies. They run a number of conservation projects all around the world to help study, record and protect critically endangered or priority species such as cheetahs, rhinos, lions, elephants, monkeys and vultures. Essentially, Wildlife ACT provides a guilt-free safari into the wild while gathering information that will aid in their conservation. Voluntourists will spend their days assisting conservationists in spotting target species, using radio telemetry to record data on the species, checking on animal conditions as well as setting up and retrieving data from camera stations. This is the perfect way to be involved in animal conservation without unknowingly causing them any harm, as regular tourist safaris often can.
Bambini Dream Foundation Trust, SOUTH AFRICA
Category: Art, Music, Children
Often voluntourists have the desire to work with children, but the actual value a volunteer can provide to them is questionable, particularly if they are not qualified in the field of child education. Certainly, there are an abundance of opportunities abroad for those trained in the fields of therapy, child care and psychology, but for the volunteers who don’t fall into those categories Bambini Dream Foundation has found an inspiring way to utilize creative volunteers in the interest of children welfare. Every person has some form of creativity in which they excel, some creative passion they may not be utilizing to the fullest. Artists, writers and musicians, even at amateur levels, have a place as Bambini volunteers to help children to express themselves through creative outlets.
Contributed by: EMILY HEEB : Emily is a freelance writer from Fort Wayne, Indiana. She is an avid camper and hiker, as well as a supporter of animal rights. She advocates for better environmental practices and pollution control. In her spare time she volunteers at a local animal shelter and enjoys learning how to cook dishes from around the world.