A Response to My Favorite Travel Blogger on Volunteerism

The author prefers to remain anonymous.

When I graduated college, I knew I wanted to spend time volunteering abroad. I had taken classes on sustainable volunteerism, “ugly Americanism”, as well as culture and leadership. Through classes on Semester at Sea, I saw first-hand how orphanage tourism exploits children and often does more harm than good. I learned that volunteering has significant pros and cons and that expansive research is required to aid development in a sustainable way. When I accepted the position to teach English with a nonprofit associated with the Colombian Ministry of National Education, I made sure that I not only planned to stay with my students until they graduated, but that I was qualified to do so.

As someone who is passionate about travel, I like to follow travel bloggers. One of my favorites, Drew Binsky, recently posted a video about someone he met while traveling named Christian Betzmann. Christian is a German citizen who volunteers around the world. He most recently spent time at a home stay in Thailand while teaching English to young children. The video posted to Facebook quickly filled with positive comments. One comment, however, asked Drew to do a video on the pros and cons of volunteerism. A flood of followers posted relevant articles and information. Christian then commented to the criticism saying “WHAT BULLSHIT” which Drew Binsky ‘liked’. A more reassuring comment may have been one highlighting what made him qualified to be a volunteer, such as work experience with young children or a TEFL certification. Drew taught English in South Korea for an extended period of time so it was a disappointing and confusing response from someone I had followed for years.

I do believe that many of these bloggers and volunteers, like Drew and Christian, have the best intentions. But there are many instances where volunteerism does more harm than good. Shannon O’Donnell, a volunteer tourism expert, wrote The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. In an interview with the travel blog Nomadic Matt, she describes five steps on finding ethical volunteer projects. Step one is understanding development and aid. She says that “one of the hardest things for new, eager volunteers to understand is that not all organizations — even nonprofits — are doing good, necessary work that ethically develops the communities and ecosystems where we volunteer our time.”

Even Hostel World, a site frequented by almost any frugal traveler, has a great article on avoiding the “voluntourism trap”. A tip they include is examining the requirements when it comes to volunteering with children.

“When looking at these opportunities you should try to imagine a similar situation in your own country. Would a school near you allow any person to teach, interact or be alone with children? Unlikely. The same applies for volunteering abroad with children – the stricter the requirements are for volunteers, the more likely the organisation operates ethically.”

Almost every resource on ethical volunteerism includes a warning against volunteering in orphanages. In 2012, UNICEF reported that while the number of Cambodian orphans has decreased, the number of orphanages has rapidly increased. A state-run investigation was launched and found that many were orphanages run as businesses profiting from tourism. HostelWorld quotes ReThink Orphanages, a lobbying group of NGOs, saying “in many cases, residential care centres are being created as businesses, designed to generate an income from people willing to volunteer their time and donate their money to support ‘orphan’ children. Children are often deliberately kept in poor conditions in order to elicit sympathy from well-meaning visitors who are then moved to donate. In Nepal, there have been documented cases of residential care centres being linked to child trafficking.” A red flag to identify these types of organizations are “little to no volunteer requirements” and no “relevant skills or knowledge for working with children”. When working with children, volunteers should also avoid the “revolving door” syndrome. Short-term volunteering can have a severe effect on children. The goal is to stay a sustainable amount of time.

Drew Binsky did include two sources at the end of his video; WOOF and WorkAway. While those are two great organizations, it did not address Christian’s expertise or the sustainability of the projects he works with.

No one should be discouraged from volunteering but instead encouraged to find a project that fits their expertise. But first, take a step back and do some research.

The Oh Hey World team recommends a few key resources when researching ethical volunteering:

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