Combining volunteerism with travel is one of our favorite ways to explore the globe, though it’s absolutely vital to choose a project which makes a genuine difference to the community and society as a whole.
Realizing that this is now an industry which can turn a profit, some companies and organizations are ignoring the long-term effects of volunteering on host communities, and as such there is now a lot of cynicism about those who want to become an international volunteer to “do good”.
When structured correctly, volunteer placements can be mutually beneficial to both the volunteer and the local community, though how can we as travelers know which programs are responsible and which are not? What are the signs of an ethical volunteer program?
Stephen Knight is the manager of Volunteer Latin America – an eco-friendly organisation that connects international volunteers to free and low-cost volunteer programs throughout Central and South America.
We speak to him today about volunteering in Latin America, and the importance of ethical volunteerism.
What is the best thing about volunteering in Latin America?
The answer to this question is twofold. Firstly, Latin America offers some of the best volunteer projects in the world and the opportunity to learn a new language. Secondly, Latin America is one of the most impressive regions on earth.
There are mighty rivers, wilderness areas and final frontiers, but also ancient civilisations and vibrant new cultures. Latin America truly offers something for every interest and its top attractions are some of the most fascinating and memorable on the planet (e.g. Machu Picchu, Salar De Uyuni, Iguazú Falls, Perito Moreno Glacier, etc).
Whether you aim to climb to the summit of a volcano, dive among pristine coral reefs or simply laze on unspoiled beaches, Latin America provides all the ingredients for the perfect volunteer trip.
What kind of different projects are available throughout Latin America for international volunteers?
The projects available in Latin America are as varied and interesting as you might imagine. They range from helping care for orphaned and injured manatees in Belize to providing medical care for indigenous people in the cloud forests of Ecuador.
Whether you want to help street children or endangered sea turtles, you will find a project that matches your needs or personal interests in Latin America.
What is the most unique volunteer project you have heard of in Latin America?
This is a difficult question as we have supported many unique projects over the years.
These include assisting with the photo identification of humpback whales in Brazil, being an ayahuasca ceremony attendant in Peru, helping care for rescued sloths in Costa Rica, and being a pilot in Mexico!
Some of the projects we currently offer are quite unique such as a circus animal rescue project in Peru, a husky sledding project in Chile, a microalgae project in Colombia, and a volcano boarding project in Nicaragua.
Which countries do the majority of volunteers come from?
Most volunteers originate from the following countries: United Kingdom; United States of America; Canada; Australia, New Zealand and Ireland.
Should those volunteering in Latin America speak Spanish?
The language requirements differ from project to project and some don’t require any Spanish speaking skills.
As a general rule, the more Spanish you know, the greater the choice of projects.
Which countries are in the greatest need for volunteers?
Countries which receive the lowest number of visitors such as El Salvador and Venezuela probably have the greatest need. Any Latin American country off the ‘gringo trail’ will find it more difficult to attract international volunteers.
Some of the poorest countries in the region such as Bolivia and Nicaragua also merit consideration.
There are projects in every Latin American country in desperate need of volunteer assistance.
Should volunteers be assigned to projects based on their skills, or do you believe volunteering is a great way to learn new skills?
Both options apply. Some voluntary organisations want to make sure that the focus of the project is closely aligned with their strategic goals. A skill-based volunteer assignment allows an organisation to best benefit from the volunteers skill set and get the most out of the experience.
Other organisations are flexible, giving volunteers the opportunity to participate in a project that isn’t based on their skill set.
Volunteering is a fantastic way to learn new skills or test-drive a new career.
Should a volunteer project come with extortionate fees? What is the average price you would consider ethical for a volunteer project to charge for participation?
Absolutely not. If a project comes with an extortionate fee it usually means someone is making a profit.
Sadly, the gap year and career break industry has become increasingly profit-driven in recent years, much to the detriment of volunteers and the needs of host communities. These companies are responsible for tarnishing the goodwill of overseas volunteering via unethical business practices.
The overseas volunteer industry may conjure up images of working with impoverished people in underdeveloped parts of Latin America, or with threatened species and ecosystems, but what they don’t tell you are that it’s a lucrative multinational industry.
We strongly believe people should be able to volunteer abroad without paying large participation or placement fees. We advise anyone intending to volunteer overseas to work through a grassroots volunteer organisation; thereby ensuring 100% of any money paid goes to the cause rather than subsidising the plush offices, expensive marketing efforts and staffing requirements of a volunteer placement or gap year company.
And the money volunteers save by setting up their own overseas volunteering assignment can be used to cover travel expenses, extend a trip, or volunteer abroad for a longer period of time.
None of the projects we offer come with extortionate fees and a large proportion of them are free. If a fee is involved the average cost is US$300 per month.
What is ethical volunteerism and what is the importance of this?
Ethical volunteering is about ensuring the contribution you make is meaningful to the host community or natural environmental, and has a lasting, positive impact.
After all, if the work you do is worthwhile and long lasting, it will not only be better for the host community or natural environment, but ultimately more rewarding for you.
Beware, some volunteer projects offer little more than glorified holidays and others are more interested in making a profit than helping the environment or providing sustainable and well-targeted help for local communities. No one benefits from these projects apart from the companies that organise them.
As the ethics of volunteering abroad is at the core of Volunteer Latin America you shouldn’t have much difficulty finding a project where you and the host organisation mutually benefit from the experience.
Ethical volunteerism is wholly dependent on choosing the right project.
What are different ways a traveller can ensure a prospective project is an ethical one?
The key message is – do your research if you want to so some really valuable work.
Prospective volunteers must examine the work they will be doing and how it affects local people and the natural environment.
There are organisations promoting ethical volunteering within the sector, such as Volunteer Latin America and Volunteer 4 Africa, which makes the task of finding an ethical project relatively straightforward.
These organisations have already carefully screened the projects thus saving you a considerable amount of time and effort. With organisations such as Volunteer Latin America and Volunteer 4 Africa you are better placed to ensure your contribution overseas will be meaningful and worthwhile.
If you want to conduct your own research, use a projects website and other internet sources to evaluate the project. You can acquire most of the information you need about a project via blogs, forums and websites.
Contact the project if there is anything you are not sure about. It is also a good idea to connect with past volunteers to ask them their opinion of a project. Talking with an ex-volunteer can answer many questions about a projects purpose and principles.
Prospective volunteers are strongly advised to satisfy themselves on the management, financial, safety, health and all other aspects of a project before enrolling on it.
It is much easier to ensure your own goodwill translates into doing real good if you choose to work with a reputable grassroots volunteer organisation. This immediately eliminates all the cynicism and problems associated with gap year and volunteer placement companies.
Independent ‘grassroots’ volunteering is the most ethical form of volunteering as all your financial contribution goes to the project rather than to a third party in Europe or elsewhere.
A greater amount of research is required if you are thinking of working through a gap year or placement company. There are various articles in the press rightly criticising volunteering placements for ignoring the effects of volunteering on host communities.
All too common are tales of projects taking work away from local people, slapdash building work, or the effectiveness of grassroots organisations being compromised because of contractual agreements (e.g. some grassroots organisations are forced to sign exclusivity agreements so that international volunteers can only work through the volunteer placement company).
A genuine collaboration between a local project and a volunteer placement company will put your skills as a volunteer to best use. Find out how your efforts fit into a longer-term development plan and how the positive impact of your work will be sustained.
Will other volunteers be taking over and how is the project supported year-round? Ask the volunteer placement company to clearly explain their finances and how much money goes to the project. You should avoid gap year and placement companies that give none of their profits to their local partners.
You can read more about the ethics of volunteerism on the Volunteer Latin America website.
What is Volunteer Latin America all about?
Volunteer Latin America is an online platform that connects voluntary organisations and language schools with a global audience of prospective volunteers and students.
Our mission is to help protect Latin America’s flora and fauna, its biodiversity, and to offer the most cost effective way to become an environmental or humanitarian volunteer in Central or South America.
We are strong proponents of ethical volunteering and grassroots projects that benefit economically, socially and politically disadvantaged people, and help protect a diverse range of species, habitats and locations.
One aspect of our organisation that separates us from similar services is our environmental policy, enabling us to be called the ‘greenest’ volunteer advisor on the planet.
Best practices include running a solar powered and paperless office. We also raise funds for environmental causes in the region via an innovative green funding scheme.
To promote the importance of ethical volunteering, we are giving 10 readers a free membership for Volunteer Latin America valued at £9.99 each, where you will have full access to connect with voluntary organisations and language schools running ethical volunteer programs throughout the region.
Enter the below Sweepstakes for a chance to WIN! Competition closes February 10 2015.