Authored by Trent Matthews – myfirstbackpack.co
You wake up to the sound of birdsong outside your little stone hut, a fresh mountain breeze entering the space through the hand carved, traditional wooden vents that pepper the gorgeously textured natural walls.
You wriggle out of your snug sleeping bag and step outside to be greeted by the Himalayan mountain range – the tallest peaks in the world rising resplendently from the green valleys far below you. Their flanks glisten in the gently filtered rays of another perfect sunrise. You say to yourself, today I’m gonna help some people, and it’ll be a good day. Best things about volunteering.
This is life when volunteering, in particular, a work exchange in Nepal; but a similar scenario is attainable anywhere in the world. Replace the Himalayas with the Pacific Ocean; or replace your stone hut with a tent in a lush European forest, or a treehouse in the jungles of Costa Rica. Pros of volunteering.
‘Voluntourism’ is a rather critical term thrown around a lot these days, but in my opinion it can be a wonderful, ethical, and sustainable way to travel, so long as you properly screen the families or local/international organisations with which you plan to work. The best things about volunteering overseas.
After-all, travel in itself presents some ethical challenges. Consuming valuable resources by flying more than the average person, unwittingly participating in scams or tourist traps that disenfranchise the local population, not paying taxes or helping others in your home country for years on end – the list goes on. So, how to offset this? How can you live a life of travel and still create a net positive benefit for the world? Pros and cons of volunteering overseas.
In my experience, volunteering either in an independent local community project or with an ethical organisation is a great place to start.
The Great and Not-so-great of Work Exchanges and Voluntourism
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Whether you join a project for six weeks or six months, your head and your own two hands are capable of greatly assisting others. Not only will your overall travel experience be greatly enriched by living with local people in beautiful places, picking up the language, and heading off the tourist trail; but you’ll be helping people who need it – every single day. Good things about volunteering
Volunteering or work exchange can tie in exceptionally well with a regular travel itinerary, and one things that I love is having ‘time off’ from the usual on-the-road schedule of moving to a new place every four or five days. Staying with locals is my preferred mode of accommodation when travelling, and usually when on a work exchange I get to stay with locals for an extended period of time, which is even better. Learning the local language, how to cook dishes passed down through many generations, and being looked after and nourished by generous people is a wonderful experience. Cons of volunteering.
If you love adventure, volunteer-based travel has you covered. My travel friends and I have camped in the swiss alps, rafted down mighty rivers, mountain biked through the Indonesian rainforest, summited active volcanoes, traversed the deepest slums of Delhi, and woke to Himalayan sunrises in the frigid depths of winter; all as part of volunteering trips. Good and bad of volunteering.
Despite the positive benefits of volunteer-based travel for both travellers and the communities in which they work, there are many naysayers out there who believe that volunteering has a negative knock-on effect on local communities. This is unfortunately true in some cases. Bad things about volunteer trips.
Several organisations employ paying volunteers rather than local workers, which therefore has no benefit to the local economy. In addition, many volunteers may not have the necessary skills to carry out their work and therefore create no tangible benefit for the locals. In light of these unfortunate facts, you must research the host or organisation that you plan on volunteering with thoroughly. Negative aspects of volunteering abroad.
I will never work on a project that doesn’t employ locals and pay them a fair wage. Likewise, I won’t work on a project that I do not have the adequate skills to carry out effectively (e.g. medical assistance, working with vulnerable people; but I am a decent farmer, teacher and builder). Volunteer overseas.
Chris Zeiher, from travel publisher Lonely Planet, sums it up perfectly, agreeing that the “onus was on the individual to research and ask the right questions” of organisations before embarking on voluntourism trips. Despite the overwhelming pessimism about voluntourism, mainly online; I still believe that volunteer-based travel can be massively beneficial.
How to Avoid Negative Side-Effects
How to mitigate these potentially negative side-effects of voluntourism? Research your potential projects and the overarching organisations (if any) a lot. Ensure that they are ethical, they employ locals, and that you’ll be put on jobs where your skills can be utilised. Find ethical volunteer trips.
Learn the language, learn about the history of a place, learn the names of all the locals – don’t just be in it for the ‘humanitarian selfie’ with kids whose names you forget. Most importantly, when you find an ideal project, have an amazing time, and know that you are making a positive impact.
How to Get Involved
I’ve volunteered on nine separate projects (most being run by local families) in several countries in my travel ‘career’ to date, and have loved every single experience that I’ve had. I mainly use a network called Help Exchange – a classifieds style list of work exchange projects available around the world, which are often free to join and provide board in exchange for a few hours of your hard work per day. Ethical volunteer organizations overseas.
Though there are several ways in which you can get involved with volunteer-based travel. Another classifieds-style site is Work Away. Together with Help Exchange, these are good places to start when you want a nice, local place to stay; and to make an impact on a grassroots level, with all of your time and effort going directly to bolstering local workers and families.
Alternatively you can look into not-for-profits such as THISWORLDEXISTS (a small Australian company with whom I help to build schools in Nepal) and Trek to Teach; or even larger NGOs like CARE or UNDP.
Ask around and research properly before committing to a trip, as ethical obligations can vary between organisations. Having said that, I’ve never had a negative experience when volunteering for any of the above companies!
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