Voluntourism, traveling and paying to volunteer, has gained momentum during the last decade. It has even become one of the fastest growing niche travel markets. While most volunteering travelers (or is it traveling volunteers?) mean well and simply want to have a more meaningful vacation, certain forms of voluntourism have a very negative impact on the local communities they are supposed to serve.
Without a doubt, orphanage tourism is the clearest example of this negative impact. There are some serious concerns that in some places volunteers and the financial fees they pay are fueling the demand for orphans. A CNN story reported that the popularity of orphanage tourism has created a market for ‘orphans’ in Cambodia. Parents rent out their children for the day to play with volunteers. There are also ethical concerns, but to a much lesser degree, about other popular voluntourism activities, such as helping to build houses. Does the presence of volunteers really contributes or are they only doing work that otherwise could have been done (better) by locals and help them earn a living?
Is there then no way that we as travelers can contribute as a volunteer to the places we visit? Good news, there is! It is possible to volunteer in a responsible way while also experience meaningful cultural immersion and exchange. However, you do need to put some extra effort and do your research.
Here are 5 key points to keep in mind when looking for a place to volunteer in Peru or elsewhere:
1. Share your specific skills, experience and knowledge
Unfortunately, there are too many examples of volunteers with great intentions but who pick the wrong volunteering position, a job they have never done before or have any experience with. For instance, some volunteers build crooked walls during the day, which are secretly fixed by professionals at night. Others help out at an animal shelter, but the employees have more work looking after the volunteer than if they would do all the work themselves.
Everyone has a skill, relevant experience or knowledge to share! Think about what you have to offer and look for a related volunteering position. If you’re a nursing student, many health centers will be happy to have you help out. But it can be something simpler as well. Do you love to paint? Then look for and contact afterschool or holiday programs for kids and offer to organize art workshops. Are you good at basketball or football? You get it by now, use your skills to volunteer responsibly.
2. Communicate directly with the local organization
Once you have found an organization to which your skills could be of use, communicate directly with them. Even if you have found out about them through an international volunteering organization or website, ask for the local contact details. If the bigger organization is really about helping out, then why should they object?
Some people may still prefer the all-inclusive packages of an international volunteering agency because those do provide certain benefits. Especially first-timers (or their parents!) might feel more comfortable knowing with this seemingly safer option that usually includes training, insurance, accommodation and other logistics. That is perfectly fine, but it is still essential to talk in advance with the local organization to discuss how you can contribute most.
3. Contact previous volunteers
Without a doubt, the most relevant information about volunteering for a certain organization or project comes from former volunteers. Ask them about the work, living conditions and the impact they feel they had. If no one wants to give you the contact details of previous volunteers, you can wonder if they’re hiding something. Of course, this especially applies to larger volunteering agencies, but also local organizations might have worked with volunteers before. On the other hand, it is also possible that if you contact an NGO or a school yourself, you might be their first volunteer ever.
4. If you make a donation, find out exactly where the money goes
If you volunteer with an international volunteering agency, you of course pay a fee for their services. It is a company after all and they need to make a profit and pay their employees. Nothing wrong with that. However, some of these agencies are accused of making large profits out of volunteers’ fees and donations, with little money going to the actual good cause. Ask for transparency in money issues. Again, if they are an honest project, truly trying to make a positive impact, they have no reason not to give you more details about where the money goes.
5. Think about impact
Once you’ve found a volunteering position and have more information about the specific work you’ll be doing, think about what impact your presence and work will have on all the people involved. For instance, your impact on local employment. Consider whether you’re taking a local’s job or if you’re just an additional help.
If you’re volunteering with children, you need to think how important your role in their daily routine will be. Think about what impact this will have on the children, who might have a change of “parent-volunteers” every couple of months. This is not to say that there is no way you can responsibly volunteer with children. But it all depends on the specific tasks you’ll do and the amount of time you will be there. For instance, teaching them English, helping them with their homework or doing workshops with them is something completely different than being one of the main caretakers of orphans. It’s important to evaluate all aspects of your potential impact.
It might seem complicated and a lot of work to find a way to responsibly volunteer in Peru or anywhere else in the world, but it IS possible. Make sure to write a lot of relevant NGO’s, introduce yourself and your specific background and ask if they know of a place or organization that could use a volunteer like you. If you choose to go with a volunteering agency, make sure you do your research. If you lack the time or patience to do all this work, we’d love to help you volunteer responsibly in Peru. We can just put you in contact with organizations all over Peru or we can organize the entire volunteer experience for you. Check here for more information and feel free to contact us with any questions.