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Volunteering Overseas

The Ethics of Voluntourism

By Lachie Mulcahy
Creative Communications Manager 

Have you ever thought about spending your vacation volunteering overseas?

Voluntourism has become a bit of a trend for western travellers, particularly graduate millennials who will give their time to work in an orphanage for a couple of weeks, or help out on an infrastructure project. It is always done with the best intentions, with the hope of making a difference. But did you know that volunteering in this way can sometimes have a negative impact on the communities that we are trying to help?


Oaktree’s take on voluntourism

At Oaktree, we encourage every Australian to participate in ethical volunteering and tourism. We believe that it is crucial to ensure that the work of volunteers is contributing to creating sustainable communities and empowering the people that live in them. Giving people access to resources so they have the power to pull themselves up and break the cycle of poverty is fundamental to our approach.

Short-term solutions or ‘band aid fixes’ can be ineffective at achieving their aims, and can actually do damage in some circumstances. Long-term projects can also be harmful if they are implemented poorly and don’t consider the needs of the community.

This is why much of Oaktree’s work is based around programs that improve access to quality education. Oaktree partners with organisations in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste, who implement grassroots education projects that empower young people to break out of poverty. Our partners are the experts in how to make change in their communities, not us - and that's why we believe that local people should always be at the centre of decision-making.


Do your research!

As an aspiring volunteer, the best thing is to do your research about the community that you want to work in so that you understand the issues that it faces. Why are people there stuck in poverty? Are there social barriers? Political barriers? Environmental barriers? Is the poverty there a product of conflict or natural disasters? By forming a deeper understanding of the community’s issues, you will be in a better position to identify the needs of the locals. 

Researching the community beforehand will allow you to assess the impact that your presence will have on the local economy. Often, travellers will embark on infrastructure projects like building a well or a library, but will not have the proper building experience to do so and will end up doing a poor job. Despite good intentions, this has a number of negative impacts from putting local builders out of work, to supporting some underlying assumptions that foreigners know better than locals. Even building a school can be a wasteful exercise if there is no long term plan to train and pay teachers to run it.


Make sure the host organisations are legit

It is also important to research the local organisation and travel company you want to go through to make sure that they have ethical policies and tourism practices.  The voluntourism industry is estimated to be worth $2 billion annually, which opens up avenues for unethical practices.

Unfortunately, some orphanages partner with travel companies who prey on unsuspecting travellers in order to make a profit. The travellers typically spend thousands of dollars in flights and tour fees to play with orphans or teach them basic English classes. This is how voluntourism can play a role in maintaining the institutionalisation of children in orphanages. The exploitation of children disguised as humanitarian aid is the very definition of unethical volunteering; it can be detrimental and does little to break the cycle of poverty and dependency.

Again, do your research so you can make an informed decision.


Making a lasting impact

Think about the skills that you have, and how you can translate them into making a lasting change. Many communities living in poverty have gaps in their workforce where certain skilled workers are not present. In this case, the best way to work towards a sustainable community is to pass on your skills so that when you leave, trained locals will have the knowledge to fill that gap. 

Similarly, think about the skills that you don’t have, and understand that you may not be qualified for certain roles.


Volunteering at home

Remember that you don’t always have to travel overseas and work on the ground to make an impact. Maybe your skills are better off put to use at an aid agency or an NGO like Oaktree, where you can use that degree in international studies and communications by campaigning for foreign aid. 

Alternatively, maybe you are an events organiser who could play a role in promoting events that spread awareness of the issues surrounding poverty. Or maybe you are a journalist who has the capacity to write powerful stories and inform readers about the need to address the current refugee crisis.


Start planning your ethical holiday!

Volunteering overseas is a great thing to do and I highly recommend it. I hope that after reading this article, you are a little bit more informed about the issues surrounding voluntourism and what you can do to make a positive impact.

Visit oaktree.org/ethical_tourism to find out more information on voluntourism and to sign the pledge!