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What I Learned From Being a Volunteer Tourist Abroad

**SPOILER ALERT: THIS IS AN OPINION / LONG READ ARTICLE **

After having worked in the volunteer tourism industry in Ecuador and Cambodia, I realized that if I really wanted to make a meaningful difference, I should be writing about volunteer tourism and researching the phenomenon rather than to do the actual volunteer work. So I started to conduct research on the phenomenon in Cuba. For now, my own research is done (and compiled in some articles and a Masters’ thesis), but for some the research continues…

Recently I got contact by Julia Rommel, a student at ‘iba’ Internationale Berufsakademie Köln in Germany. She is currently conducting research for her own thesis on “Volunteer-Tourism as a form of travel in context of development cooperation – a critical analysis of assorted characteristics, development possibilities and effects of the view of the various involved participants”. She asked me if she could interview me about my own personal experiences. It turned out to be a very meaningful reflection for myself again, and I realize I should keep sharing what I have learned from volunteering abroad. 

So here’s to all who consider to volunteer abroad. Julia and I wanted to share the interview online so that we could raise awareness and open a public discussion. 

Continue reading if you want to know: 

  • How the involvement in the projects can be envisioned locally on the spot.
  • What exactly I did in Ecuador and Cambodia
  • Which impact volunteering abroad had on my personal life 
  • How I finance my trips abroad
  • What I think is the best way to organize a volunteer trip
  • How I really think about volunteer tourism

Please share your comments after reading. We love to hear from you and who knows… it can help Julia to collect more research data for her thesis!

1. What do you personally find fascinating about travelling?

I love to travel because it allows me to see different parts of the world and de-familiarize my own culture, habits, world views and so on. You can meet new people, discover new places, eat different foods, see other types of architectures and religions, and so on. Traveling is part of my personal development because it turns you into a different person after: in my case, traveling has made me feel more open-minded, conscious, knowledgeable, confident, adventurous, flexible, social, assertive and open towards a multi-cultural society.

Travel far enough, you meet yourself.

David Mitchell

I feel also that travel gave me more understanding of life outside my own bubble (village), but also about political and religious issues, such as climate change, female circumcision, prostitution and illiteracy. By experiencing things first-hand or witnessing situations you often learn a lot more than from reading it in books or hearing about it on tv or in the university. Simultaneously, you get to know yourself better because you obviously start to question your own life, conditions and ways of seeing or thinking. This is why I like traveling so much. 

Moreover, I love photography and writing so I love traveling because it is beautiful to go somewhere for photographic reasons or to write about places for my travel blog. On top of that, traveling allows you to learn languages and practices your language skills better than any course can do. I have learned basic Spanish at school, but it was only by studying in Spain, doing my internship in Ecuador, conducting research in Cuba and working in Mallorca that I could become so fluent in it.

Lastly, because travel is so adventurous and challenging at times, it gives you an adrenaline rush. Therefore, I would say that travel becomes an addiction. You always want to see more places, travel more often, do it again and again. For me, it is very hard to settle in a small Belgian village now that I have travelled to so many places and lived abroad for so many times and so long. I am so used to having stories to tell, to get inspired by the things I encounter along the way. I just love it!

2. Where do you currently work and live?

I currently live in Palma de Mallorca where I work for Thomas Cook in Destination Management. This is a temporary contract for the Summer Season from March until October. I chose this job because I wanted to live on a Spanish island in the sun under good working conditions (apartment, salary, insurance, …) but I am not sure yet if I will want to or can stay in the company. I am thinking of going on a Working Holiday Visa (WHV) to Australia before I get 30 (I’m 27 now) so that I can travel while working in Oceania as well, but the plan is not concretized yet.

3. How do you define „Volunteer Tourism“?

For me, volunteer tourism is the travel that includes some activities of volunteering. Ideally, it should represent a balance between a holiday (tourism) and volunteering (work), but often this is not the case. Usually, it tends to focus more on the touristic part of the trip. We must not forget that tourism is an economy (providing a product or service in return for money), whereas volunteering is usually associated with altruism (doing something good without expecting something in return for it). My thesis deals with the contradiction between profit-seeking activities and charitable generosity. Nowadays, any kind of touristic activity that includes volunteerism can be considered volunteer tourism.

For a detailed conceptualization of the term ‘volunteer tourism’ I refer to chapter 2.1 in my Master’s thesis (p.22) ‘Why Don’t You Give Me Some Love – An anthropological examination of the intimate relationship between volunteer tourism and jineterismo in Cuba’ and a paper I wrote ‘PLEASE MIND THE GAP! (In-) Consistency in Gap Year Volunteer Tourism’.  

4. From March until June and from June until August 2014 you worked as a project coordinator and group leader for volunteers in Cambodia and Ecuador. How can I envision the involvement in the projects locally on the spot?

What exactly did you do there? Were the projects comparable? Do they have something to do with Volunteer Tourism? Tell me about your experiences and about the volunteers that had applied for the voluntary work.

Yes, indeed. I worked in Ecuador and Cambodia as a volunteer group leader for a gap year company in the UK in 2014. I also participated in a volunteer brigade in Cuba for my Master’s thesis research in 2016.

Ecuador

I worked for the Yanapuma Foundation in Ecuador. This is a grassroots, self-sustaining NGO in Ecuador that works with a number of rural, indigenous and marginalized communities on sustainable development projects in the areas of health, education and agriculture. As part of its long-term goals to assist local communities adapt to an increasingly globalised world while promoting and preserving their culture, Yanapuma provides economic, material and human resources so that they may partake in social development projects within their communities.

An important aspect of my work at Yanapuma Foundation was the provision of international volunteers for both short and long-term periods (from one week to six months) to assist these communities with their goals. The NGO receive groups of volunteers from The Leap Gap Years Overseas between 18-22 years old from gap year programs several times per year, particularly for 6 to 10-week programs.

My responsibilities were to maintain in contact with the volunteer coordinator at the office to organize logistics and plan the project prior to their arrival. I had to receive the group upon arrival and be their leader through most of their time with Yanapuma in Ecuador. This included traveling with the group and living with them on site to participate in their project work and coordinate accommodation, food, and extra activities. I was serving as the principal English/Spanish translator between the group and local project coordinators. I also managed money for group expenses such as bus tickets and I made expense reports at the end of each phase. I was the point-of-contact between the group and the Yanapuma office in case of problems or concerns, and I was overseeing the health and wellbeing of the group, during their time with Yanapuma and react in case of emergency. I provided weekly updates describing group activities and/or any health issues.

As a Volunteer Group Leader I had to motivate, manage and lead these groups in different locations around Ecuador. Locations included Quito, Otavalo, indigenous communities, Baños, Quilotoa, and Riobamba. The programs included a mix of community volunteering and tourism. As a group leader, I lived with the group. In the indigenous communities, everyone lived in volunteer cabins, and while in Quito and traveling to other destinations we stayed in hostels.

Chilcapamba

Cambodia

In Cambodia, I was contracted by Indochina Adventures, Co. Ltd., a tour operator based in Siem Reap since 1999. I worked for them as a Volunteer Group Leader for similar volunteer groups as in Ecuador sent by The Leap Gap Years Overseas. Indochina Adventures is, in contrary to Yanapuma Foundation, not an NGO. It is a commercial tour operator specialized in cycling and trekking, but the company also offers bird watching, photography tours and volunteer programs.

Indochina Adventures is a local travel company that actively participates in country development and helps the Cambodian community as it strongly believes that local people are the people who should get the most income from tourism. The founders recommend tourists to sleep in home stays, to eat delicious local food such as Amok, to support the floating school at Tonle Sap lake by providing school kits, and so on. Indochina Adventures strongly believes that poor schoolchildren with better education will have a better future. In addition, it supports some of the NGOs to help the kids with HIV/AIDS, it also support the Trailblazer Foundation to provide water filter for ‘the poorfamilies’ (quoted from their website). 

Comparison – Difference in Projects

My job role in Cambodia was similar to that in Ecuador. The difference is probably most in the nature of the projects. Hereby a list of the various project I worked on:

Ecuador – Chilcapamba

The Chilcapamba Community is located near Otavalo in the Andes, two hours north of Quito. The region is a center of indigenous culture in Ecuador and continues today the production of world-renowned handicrafts. Many indigenous communities in the area still face economic hardship and erosion of their culture. The community of Chilcapamba is working hard to preserve their language and identity, whilst still participating in modern Ecuadorian life through education and the development of sustainable industries. There are approximately 100 families in the community and they are currently undertaking a range of projects in the areas of education, development, sustainable agriculture and the preservation of indigenous culture. 

In the mornings we were helping with a variety of projects. Activities included digging irrigation ditches, clearing rocks and planting trees. Volunteers also cleared weeds near future garden sites, helped to maintain existing gardens, worked on construction in the community centre or helped out in the local school. In the afternoons, volunteers had group Spanish classes for 2 hours in the community.

Ecuador – Tsachila Community

In the lowland jungle there was another volunteer project with the Tsachila community. Here we did a number of cultural activities and got to know the community. The volunteers have participated in expanding the cultural centre and the cacao cooperative. They have helped to reforest the area, maintained the botanical gardens and constructed additional tourist cabins and classrooms for the local school. 

Projects included planting hundreds of cocoa plants (3 days a week) and constructing small plant nurseries for a number of the families (the other 2 days of the week) so that they could easily care for the crops that they grow from the beginning. Volunteers also had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Tsachila culture with afternoon activities such as making artisan crafts, painting your hair bright red with achiote paste and learning how to play Marimba (typical instrument).

Ecuador – Hacienda Tranquila

In the Galapagos Islands, I took the volunteers to Hacienda Tranquila. The Hacienda is located in the highlands of the island, on a 50-hectare site, where there is still native vegetation. The main objective of the project was to develop the technology to reconstruct native habitat in the highlands on San Cristobal, and to serve as a centre for similar projects in the highlands of other populated islands in the Galapagos chain. We worked to reverse the negative effects of invasive or introduced species, restoring the native and endemic forests of San Cristobal. This means much of your time was spent cutting down invasive species such as blackberry bushes and in turn planting tree species native to the islands. Afternoons were spent working in the organic garden: watering plants, weeding, and caring for the baby plants in the nursery.

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, special needs children from the community came to the Hacienda and the volunteers assisted them in a form of therapy in which the children ride horses. Finally, volunteers took care of the animals on the hacienda which include cows and chickens. 

Cambodia – Water Project

Despite its beautiful exterior, Siem Reap is one of the poorest regions in Cambodia, a town the difference between rich and poor is stark. The illegal slum settlements which perch on the polluted riverside are a stones throw from luxurious 5* hotels with their turquoise swimming pools and overflowing breakfast buffets. Communities of displaced people, army families, victims of landmines and sex-workers live in deep poverty with little access to education or basic amenities – tucked out of sight of the cities’ affluent tourists. It is estimated that only half the population have access to clean water and less than a quarter have access to a toilet. With the volunteers’ help, Indochina Adventures aimed to build functioning wells and flushing toilets to service these communities and, in the process, help to restore health and dignity to people too often overlooked by the authorities. 

The mornings were spent with a team of local construction workers, digging, mixing cement, helping to lay pipes and installing water pump kits.

Cambodia – Orphanage Project

In the afternoons volunteers joined forces with the Cambodia Development Organisation (CDO) who provide a home for orphaned and poor children. Founded by a local Cambodian in 2006 CDO provides children at risk with vital shelter, protection, food and education for people who need it most. The centre is situated 7km East of Siem Reap and comprises basic accommodation, classrooms, performance spaces and outside play areas for 30-40 children at a time. Volunteers assisted the centre with improvements to the buildings, interact with, feed and teach kids English whilst supporting CDO financially through the donation Indochina Adventures made on their behalf. 

Cambodia – Eco-Agriculture Project

Another morning project included the immersion in a rural farming community in Samrong village near Siem Reap, where subsistence rice farmers still live in wooden houses on stilts and children catch fish with simple wooden rods. Like many small, traditional agricultural communities the people of Samrong were, until recently, entirely dependent on the rice harvest for their livelihoods. The grain forms the basis of their diet and any additional rice left over after the community have used their share is sold for a small profit to purchase other foods, pay for education and health care. 

However, unpredictable weather conditions and the fluctuating value of rice on the market has left them vulnerable. Now with the help of local NGOs the village is working hard to diversify into other areas to have a more stable income and range of crops, increase their farming areas and productivity and have even built a communal rice store to make their harvest go further. Volunteers assisted the community with harvesting, infrastructure projects and a variety of income generating schemes, such as basket weaving and making incense sticks.

Cambodia – Teaching English

In the afternoons, volunteers worked with school children at a local school in Siem Reap while teaching English, which focused on education as a means of breaking the poverty cycle in the area. The school provided social care and aimed to improve access to education for around 1,500 disadvantaged children and young adults in their area and have a variety of incredible community projects that volunteers can get involved with. From sports coaching to painting or construction, helping out in organic farms or delivering English lessons – volunteers supported the work of the school and got to know the incredible young people they work with.

Cambodia – Children’s Painting Project ‘Let Us Create’

Let Us Create (LUC) is a day centre that provides nutritional food, clean drinking water, educational enrichment, and a creative outlet for over 100 registered children in Sihanoukville. This community group of children comes from very poor backgrounds, and many of them scavenge through garbage bins or sell souvenirs to tourists on the beach to help support their family. These identified children come to the LUC centre every day between the hours of 7:00am and 7:00pm, where they are provided breakfast, and lunch, and have the opportunity to attend educational enrichment classes. 

The project aims to provide a safe environment where the children can learn, play, be creative, challenge themselves, have fun and grow into happy, healthy young adults. In addition, LUC hopes to give them the skills and opportunities they need to become confident about and prepared for the future whilst having the tools to make educated decisions. Here, the volunteers assisted in the daily tasks of the staff members at LUC: cooking, teaching, playing, cleaning, painting, dancing and so on.

Cambodia – Elephant Valley Project (EVP)

Here I was working alongside local mahouts (elephant keepers) the volunteers were taking care at Elephant Valley Project for the rescued elephants, some of which have been abused or cruelly maimed by landmines. They spent many, magical sun-drenched hours escorting the elephants on its ambling adventures as it roamed free through jungle and grasslands, washing troubles away in the river and simply observing the largest mammal on Earth at incredible close-quarters in the wildest reaches of South East Asia.

Link between volunteering and tourism

During the weekends and between the phases of their volunteer trip, the volunteers could go on day trips or overnight trips to touristic places in the areas where they stayed. Sometimes, there were even ‘Adventurous Weeks’, ‘Island Trips’ or ‘Rutas del Sol’ included, for example. For the volunteers, the volunteer program was a way to stay longer in the country and to get a more in-depth immersion into the local culture, as compared to a usually shorter roundtrip or backpacking trip through Latin America or Southeast Asia. Moreover, it was a way for the them to make their travel not only beneficial to themselves, but also to the local communities they visited along the way.

My experience with the volunteer projects

When I started as a group leader in Ecuador, I had no experience in volunteering abroad. I was enthusiast and I really enjoyed the work. Each project had its own unique character and contribution to sustainable development. The projects seemed to be carefully selected by the local NGO which had a good reputation since many years in this sector. Of course, the volunteers were very young and not always as interested or motivated in the volunteer work itself, but with extra effort from our team we were able to lead them through the various phases of their program: despite them feeling homesick, sick, unmotivated or more interested in exploring the country or having a good party. 

When I later moved to Cambodia, I started to look different at things. The projects did not seem to be that well selected, I had the impression that the volunteer program was operated by a business rather than a community-based organization because the owner was a rich business man with many connections in the country. The owner let me stay in his boutique hotel for the whole Summer, where I was treated as a princess, which did not feel right to me. I felt that the volunteer business was for him part of a philanthropic effort while still making money out of it. Think of the Gates Foundation… There’s no such thing as a free gift. I started to learn slowly but steadily what volunteer tourism was about. The children in the orphanages seemed to be coming and going to the center whenever they wanted. I had to hand over hundreds of dollars to the school and orphanage directors without ever needing to ask what was happening with this money. The wife of my boss gave a television as her own birthday present to the school. There were no requirements for volunteers regarding minimum stay or teaching experience when going to teach in schools. The schools did not follow any learning plans (and neither did we offer to implement this) so the volunteers kept repeating the same basic stuff, and so on. 

I think I started to understand what was really going on (and what was really going wrong) when we were working on the water pump wells in Cambodia. While driving through the villages, I could see that many existing wells were broken or not operative. We drove further until we reached a village where there were no wells built yet. The plan was, according to my boss, to provide all villages with wells until everyone had water. It sounded great, but when I asked why we did not go to fix the broken ones or teach the village people how to use them better or how to repair them their selves, he said that was not in his business interest. Moreover, volunteers wanted to see instant result and he felt pressure to keep them happy with what they were doing. They needed to feel like they were making a difference. Here is when I realized that volunteer tourism is really a business which is not sustainable, and still mostly oriented towards the creation of profit for the volunteers and the organizers of it, rather than for the orphans, school children or village people.

Volunteer tourism is not a sustainable business.

– Julie Rausenberger

I decided not to continue my position after that contract (even though they offered to extend it) and I returned back to Belgium to start my Masters’ degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Leuven, where I wanted to research intimacy and the concept of gift-giving within the context of volunteer tourism, this time in Cuba. I never regret this decision to quit my job in the volunteer tourism industry because the volunteer program in Cambodia has been operating the same way it was since 2014, despite my constructive critique towards the company to be more careful in the selection of volunteer projects and their long-term implementation. 

My experience with the volunteers 

I worked with volunteer tourists from the United Kingdom who were mostly between 18-22 years old and who were currently on a gap year before starting their higher studies at the university. Most of them were dividing their year off between a few months of student work in the United Kingdom and traveling abroad to explore the world. The volunteers did the latter rather in organized and controlled ways because of different reasons: they felt too insecure to travel to far-away continents on their own, or were too unexperienced to go on a backpacking adventure on their own, or they did not have a travel mate, or they were not allowed by their parents to travel alone, or they did not know where to start, or they wanted to contribute to the world while traveling and volunteering, or they wanted to have a unique travel experience, or they were looking for a way to stay longer in one country without ‘just traveling’. They also gave the impression that they wanted to make a difference somehow this way, and that they were looking to ‘find their selves’ while seeking personal development in this year off. 

Some volunteers were even sent by their parents because their parents were convinced that this program abroad would broaden their horizon and would prepare themselves better for the ‘real world’. I had the impression that, in this case, the parents found their kids spoilt and wanted them to get out of their comfort zone by traveling in a basic but still organized and safe way (because of the guidance, group leader presence, follow up, weekly reports to parents, …). Also, the volunteer programs were very expensive and therefore obviously targeted towards a specific target group of richer families who sent their children on ‘an adventure of a lifetime’ in the hope that their children would learn not to take things for granted. Sometimes this led to paradoxical situations: the volunteers wanted to go back to basics and experience the ‘real Ecuador or Cambodia’ but in the same time they complained when their room was not ‘good enough’ or when they did not get cereals for breakfast or milk in their tea (knowing that milk and cereals are expensive in Cambodia).  

At times I was frustrated because the volunteers did not show as much interest and motivation in the volunteer work as I hoped for.

– Julie Rausenberger

A reason for this could be that they were sent by their parents, but also that they expected to see faster results. It was not motivational for them to be working on digging holes for water pipe lines in Chilcapamba, for example, for weeks. Rather, they seemed to be satisfied when they could see instant results such as when they were building a water well pump in Siem Reap: this only took a few days to be finished per well. I also noticed that they enjoyed it more to be surrounded by children or to be involved in social work in orphanages or schools. The fact that they never spoke the local language (Spanish or Khmer) withheld them from engaging more in-depth with the local community members they were working with, so the contact was again very limited and not reaching the level they had hoped for. With children, this seemed less problematic because playing did not need that much conversation. Interestingly, most of the volunteers did not make efforts before or while traveling in-country to learn the local language. This showed for me that they were only partially looking for a real engagement with the communities.

Last but not least, it speaks for itself that a large part of the trip was about fun, parties, adventures, activities and other things that are related to tourism for young travellers. The touristic aspect of the trip was very important to the volunteers, despite us – as organizers – trying constantly to put the voluntary work to the foreground. 

5. Which impacts did the work in these projects have to your personal life and to the other participants?

Impact on my personal life

At the very personal level, I think that the volunteering pushed me into the direction of my continued university studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology (after having studied Tourism and Leisure Management). I remember I met a French anthropologist, Richard Couedel, in the jungle in Ecuador. He was studying the community we were working with and eventually published a book “Yo me acuerdo, biografía de un líder Tsa’chila”about it a few years later. I was very inspired by his research and life in the community. A colleague of mine in Quito was also an anthropologist, so again, I felt that anthropology was a useful discipline to study if I wanted to continue a career in the non-profit sector. Most of all…

I realized after many personal experiences in the volunteer industry abroad, I could make a more meaningful difference by writing about volunteer tourism and researching the phenomenon than to do the actual volunteer work.

Julie Rausenberger

I also met very interesting people along the way while I worked within these organizations. For example, one of the volunteer coordinators in the UK became a friend and she now runs her own travel business in Tanzania and she has invited me to come over. Another colleague from Canada who worked in Ecuador with me is now living in New Zealand and working with another NGO, for example. It is these connections with other persons that I really value and that really had an impact on my life because they inspire me and make me believe that there are other life routes than a village life and a 9-to-5 job in Belgium.

Impact on the volunteers’ life

It is of course difficult to tell what the impacts of these volunteer programs were on the life of the volunteers because I did not keep in touch with all of them and I cannot know how they feel about it. However, from what I have seen, there are very varied scenarios: some people really opened up, I could see them becoming more confident, more assertive, more culturally aware and so on. Others could not deal with the out-of-the-comfort level of the volunteer programs. Some became very homesick or even wanted to go home (one volunteer really left home early despite us trying to cheer him up repeatedly). 

Others again saw this volunteer experience as the starting point and preparation for their independent travels. They went to travel afterwards on their own in Latin America of Southeast Asia. For some, this continuation of later travels – post-volunteering with our organization – turned out a great adventure, but for some it was a complete disaster: they were shocked how much they suddenly needed to plan and organize their selves without having the support and translation of our organization. 

On the long term, I kept in touch with some of the volunteers whom I saw growing from adolescents to young adults with a university degree and a full-time job nowadays. I do not have the impression that they became ambassadors for the volunteer work they did, or that they repeated a volunteer program ever again (not even in another country). They also did not become ‘world travellers’ or ‘frequent backpackers’, in most cases. Rather, I see them going back to a more traditional form of tourism (like package holidays or city trips within Europe) when I see and hear about their recent holidays on social media. 

One thing is for sure to me…

Volunteer programs have more impact on the personal development of the volunteers itself than that their personal effort has an impact on the volunteer projects

– Julie Rausenberger

6. What was the greatest experience during this time?

Without a doubt, I have the best memories from my time working as a volunteer group leader in Ecuador. Maybe because it was the first volunteer program I worked on, but I think it has to do with the professionalism of the NGO I worked for. The projects were very well selected and I was also very lucky to have a nice group of volunteers to lead. The most beautiful memory I have is from the Tsachila community in Ecuador because this was for me the most authentic experience. I slept in a wooden bungalow without electricity supply, there was only a natural toilet, and the shower was in the river in a lush forest. We ate bananas with fresh river fish in the morning and had no fridge. There was not even a phone signal and there was only one truck per day going to the nearest village one hour further from where I lived. The volunteer work was rewarding because we were planting small tree in bags to plant new forests to beat the deforestation in the area by American oil companies. I just knew how important this was for the local community and they were never able to build all of these trees ever again in this amount of time on top of their normal daily work. It was very humid and tough at times to work here, but because of the remote location and isolation of the community, we grew more closely together to the locals, even without knowing their language: Tsafiki.

I personally grew closer to the head of the community, who spoke Spanish, and for whom I translated everything to English to the volunteers. He was a shaman with a lot of natural wisdom who taught me to get closer connected to nature. He taught me about his spiritual life and the magic effects of ayahuasca (a traditional drink containing natural ingredients from the Amazon that causes shamans or healers to reach the expansion of their consciousness). For me, these are experiences and interactions that I will never forget. Also, the Yanapuma NGO worked together with him for many years in the battle against capitalism and the deforestation in the area, and they used the money for the conversation of this community. I really felt that the work we did, combined with the financial contribution of the volunteers, made a difference in their lives. 

7. How do you finance your trips?

I always had a both fortunate and unfortunate situation when I was a student: because I came from a rather disadvantaged family background, I managed to get scholarships more easily to finance my studies as well as my studies abroad. I got a scholarship for my internship in Ecuador and I was lucky that the NGO covered my daily expenses: Yanapuma provided food, accommodation, program related travel, and certain activities (such as white water rafting and mountain biking) while I was working as a group leader with my group. When the group was traveling to the Galapagos Islands, I had the option to stay on the mainland or to go with the group but then I had to pay my flight myself, but I still got accommodation and a few weeks off there. 

When I went to Cambodia, the company paid my flights and travel expenses, as well as housing and food. My personal expenses I covered with some saving money, which I gathered together from during student work in Belgium as a travel agent, social media manager, sales assistant, and many other student jobs that I combined with my studies. My parents have never supported my travels financially, but I always managed to budget my trips carefully. Gradually, I also became an expert in negotiating deals in destinations with local suppliers: for example, in Ecuador I would always take my volunteers to restaurants where I got good deals so that I could get something for free, or when I organized excursions for the groups in in Ecuador during their free time, I negotiated that I could join for free as their group leader. This way, I did not need much more additional pocket money to travel either.

8. In your opinion what is the best way to organise a volunteer trip?

I think the best way is to start with volunteering at home and to think about which values you are willing to represent and defend even before and after the volunteer trip.

– Julie Rausenberger

Especially now that we are living in a digital era, we can no longer find excuses to defend the values we stand for, whether these are civil rights in Ecuador or equal access to water in Cambodia. There are many social and political platforms where you can share your experiences, knowledge, where you can start campaigns, sign petitions, or you can become a member of an NGO in your country which defends your values. 

If you are then still feeling the need to go volunteering abroad, instead of empowering local communities in their own country, to defend their rights and develop their lands, then you should do a lot of research before you decide what you will do and where you will do and with whom you will do it. Nowadays, the internet is full of articles and papers about the pro’s and con’s regarding volunteer tourism. One good source I would recommend is: ‘Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad’, a book in which I contributed my experiences (anonymously) as well. On the website www.leaningservice.info you can find many useful tips and information on how to do ‘doing good’ well.

On a personal note: I found out about Learning Service through Daniela Papi. She was also working many years in the volunteer industry in Phnom Penh in Cambodia for PEPY Tours. When I first saw her TedX Talk on YoutubeI was mesmerized. In my opinion, she hit the nail on the haid. I started following her work and that’s how I started to understand better how to organize a volunteer trip.

Another good checklist on ethical volunteering trips abroad can be find on HostelWorld

9. What is your personal view on Volunteer Tourism? Do you have anything to criticize about that concept? (if yes, why and what?)

This is a very complex question to answer because I can give many arguments both pro and contra the phenomenon. As already mentioned, nowadays I support more the perspective of Service Learning, as developed on the website www.learningservice.info.

As mentioned before, I believe that people should not engage in volunteer tourism if they are not willing to OR engage in volunteering at home OR engage in defending the project at a long-term basis as ‘an ambassador for the good cause’ they are supporting during the trip. First of all, if you are willing to volunteer, there are plenty opportunities at home. If you are merely willing to do this because you can travel abroad, then maybe the intention is more self-centred / opportunistic than altruistic. I believe that the idea of volunteer tourism should still be to support local communities / projects / … primarily, your personal development should come second. So, basically, my greatest criticism would be that volunteer tourists tend to think more about how it will turn out for them personally, then for the ‘Other’ and this is a treat to the phenomenon. This is in line with critiques of volunteer tourists using their volunteer trip as an argument on their CV to show that they gained experiences in intercultural awareness etcetera. 

Also, I mentioned before that organizers of volunteer tourism should be engaging more with long-term goals and ways of working to improve the sustainability of projects and benefits for local communities. Think about the water pump wells in Cambodia example I gave. The problem that summarizes this tendency of ignorance is expertise. Both the organisations as the volunteers lack the expertise to be involved with volunteer tourism: the volunteers do not have the skills to be teaching English, for example, and the organizations do not have the means, tools or knowledge to be creating a sustainable project plan. 

What happens when there is a lack of awareness of expertise, is that volunteer tourism can do more harm than good.

– Julie Rausenberger

It is not good for children to get another teacher from another country every two weeks. The dynamic of volunteer tourism can also undermine local workers, who are put aside when a volunteer comes to take over the job.  

10.Meanwhile the combination of travel and voluntary work is developing into a profitable business. What do you think about tour operators that offer Volunteer Tourism? Is helping in this concept helpful for the locals?

First of all, we must recognise the difference between non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) offering volunteer programs and tour operators (commercial enterprises). 

To be honest, I think that tour operators are undoubtedly monetizing volunteerism into an industry. They are charging a lot of money for these programs, and most money goes into the organizational aspects of the volunteers’ trip as well as the support given to the volunteers. Many staff members are involved in a volunteer program: imagine that for my groups there was a travel agent involved in the UK, a webmaster, a marketing director, a volunteer coordinator, a group leader (or two in case there is a local group leader needed for translation or in case the groups are large) and a reservation agent for operational queries, just to name a few. The donations given to the projects are indeed also included in the expensive program prices, but I did not have the impression that the company cared about what is actually done with the money. For example, I remember that I had to donate money to an orphanage director who had the latest new smartphone and a nice motor cycle, and that I was promptly wondering whether it might have been that he bought those with the donation money (because we never got to see what he actually did with the donations). Also, in order to maintain a long-term collaboration with local projects, the projects need to remain ‘poor’ in order to be attractive in the ‘needy’ discourse that volunteer tourism organizations like to present to the tourists. This is such a pity. I think this is also the case with The Leap Gap Years Overseas, a company specializing in volunteer programs abroad for UK based travellers. 

In the case of NGOs, I think that the situation in much different. In Ecuador, for example, I worked with Yanapuma Foundation. This NGO has financial challenges to survive: they need to commercialize their projects through collaborations with volunteer companies such as The Leap Gap Years Overseas in order to earn an income to invest in their community project. They lack financial support by governments and depend on donations from volunteers. The money that they earn by collaborating with volunteer programs goes partially into the operational costs (such as housing, transport and staff salaries), but also to invest in the development of their projects. To give you an example, developing a website is very costly for an NGO and to finance this, they can also use the money they earn by their collaborations with tourists. You can also find the yearly reviews of NGOs online, or request them by email, which usually reflects their transparency. 

For the ‘locals’ involved in volunteer tourism, this is a business like another: whether you are selling a cooking workshop or a toilet construction project, it is basically the same. I had the impression that the locals saw it as a job and that they were nothing like ‘the needy’ persons that are often depicted in advertisements for volunteer tourism. They gave me the impression of participating in the game of tourism: you look authentic, poor, smile, be thankful, speak a little bit, show them a bit of what traditional skill you can, and in return they get paid for this. Maybe it is not always this straight forward: sometimes the organizers will come ‘for free’ and are ‘invited’ by local communities, but they are well aware that such a collaboration will help them to construct a new house or that they will leave them with a donation at the end, for example. In this regard, I am still very frustrated with the power dynamics going on in the First World Giver – Third World Receiver discourse that is deeply entangled in the tourism industry. I tried to write about this in my Masters’ thesis as well.

In summary, I think there is always an interest involved, whether financial or not, for all of the parties involved, and it is therefore much less about the actual help that local communities or projects need than about economic or personal development for the parties involved. 

If volunteer tourism organisations and volunteer tourists really wanted to help local communities, they would pass on their knowledge and skills to the local communities involved. 

– Julie Rausenberger

However, this does usually not happen because it would translate soon into a death end of the business, which it unfortunately remains. I questioned once too: why do we not invest the money that we spend on our volunteer program travels ourselves fully into a donation, if we would really want to help financially? Ah, because maybe the volunteer wants to travel more than he wants to support?!

11.Is a catalogue of requirements for tour operators or anyone who offers Volunteer Tourism in that business appropriate (as an entrance examination)?

The last decade there has been an increasing attention paid by NGOs and in academia to the volunteer tourism industry. Many articles are published in scientific journals and online to raise awareness about the issues with volunteer tourism. Simultaneously, the volunteer tourism industry is booming and Generation Y, or the Millenials, keep showing a significant interest in traveling ‘for a good cause’. 

Many organizations have been publishing guidelines and tips about ‘how to volunteer abroad ethically’ and ‘how to avoid the voluntourism gap’. Tour operators such as Gadventures nowadays promote such guidelines on their own websites by collaborating with Planeterra, for example. Together with the International Ecotourism Society (TIES), Planeterra (a leading non-profit organisation dedicated to sustainable community development and environmental conversation through travel), has set up a set of criteria to help volunteer tourism organisers to offer, plan and manage their volunteer programs. 

A catalogue of requirements exists but there is no overarching international organization that is controlling their operations. There are organizations who try it, such as Fair Trade Tourism in Africa and beyond, but I think there is a need for more attention to be paid by the phenomenon ‘volunteer tourism’ at a global scale by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)The Code on Responsible Travel launched in 2017 was a good start. Hopefully it is the beginning of a continued trend.

12.Critics are particularly concerned that unskilled volunteers take a part in the children lives, especially short-time stays are under strong critique which do more harm than good. Do you agree?

Yes, as mentioned above, I believe that it is irresponsible to engage as a volunteer tourist for a short period of time in teaching English to children in schools or to engage in social work more generally. Orphanage tourism should be banned overall, regardless of volunteer activities being short term or long term because it is focusing too much on compassion and guilt. This again something that I tried to explain in my thesis ‘Why Don’t You Give Me Some Love?!’ in Section 4.3.4 on ‘Help, Consciousness or Guilt?’ (page 84).  

Orphanage tourism should be banned worldwide because it focuses on discourses of compassion and guilt.

– Julie Rausenberger

When I was working with orphans in Cambodia, I heard rumours that the children were bought from their own families to go and live in an orphanage. For their families this initially seemed an excellent opportunity: they got money which they otherwise never be able to earn and they were promised that their child would be educated, well fed and taken care of. However, the child was taken away from its family which could sometimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and detachment. Moreover, when the child got ill or misbehaved in front of tourists, orphanages tend to send back the child to its family. The family then ends up dealing with the problem and loses the money. These are situations that I believe often happen. The offer is, in most cases, too good to be true.

13.Local people get degraded to an aid recipient, volunteers presented as social workers or even heroes. The communication doesn’t seem to meet at eye level. How would it be possible to change the point of view in their heads?

*This question is hard to answer as it is not entirely clear to me. Volunteers are presented by who as social workers? Which communication are you referring to? Whose communication are you referring to when mentioning ‘the communication’? Whose heads are you referring to?* 

I assume that you are trying to ask how I suggest to change the mentality of volunteer tourists when it comes to their – what we call in academia – ‘White Savior Complex’. It refers to white people helping non-white people, which can be perceived as self-interested and which is typical to our times. I think that the book ‘The White Man’s Burden’by Rudyard Kipling is explaining very well what is going on, still today.

Communication of volunteer organisations is a matter of marketing, not anthropology, unfortunately. There is a lack of cultural relativism in volunteer tourism discourses as adapted by volunteer companies.The often-used expressions such as ‘Discover the real Africa’, ‘Help poor people now’, ‘give back to society’ and ‘go local’, are good examples of typical expressions that can be problematized from an anthropological perspective. Not enough attention is given to the agency – the capacity of persons to independently act and make their own decisions or choices – in the press or in marketing of such companies because they want to enforce the hegemonic discourse of need. In Ecuador, for example, I have personally witnessed that the local communities were acting as very powerful examples of sustainable development to other communities in their society. They were seen as creative entrepreneurs with an open-minded approach to development because they were having cross-cultural relationships with volunteers around the globe, learning foreign languages and because they were actively engaging in political struggles to defend their lands. 

Marketeers in the volunteer tourism industry still reinforce the hegemonic discourse of need in development cooperation.

Julie Rausenberger

Even more, sometimes – I would dare to say – communities were actively trying to ‘play’ the ‘impoverished’ role because it was in their economic advantage. This was especially the case in Cuba, where I have been participating in a volunteer brigade to express solidarity with the Cuban Revolution in 2016. We often neglect the agency of the communities we work with because we are made believe that they need our help. The first steps to change this would probably be education, ethically responsible marketing and communication and no misleading advertisement and press. 

14.Do you think a volunteer trip has more good impact on the local society than bad?

Like any other type of tourism, volunteer tourism has a strong effect on the development of a local society, village or community.There are always positive and negative consequences involved in this, depending on the parties involved and the perspective you have. Economically, volunteer tourism will be beneficial for those parties involved that work in the industry. For others, it might translate in a loss of jobs: think about English teachers in Thailand, for example. At the socio-cultural level, I do not believe that volunteer tourism is good: it reinforces unequal power relations in the world through a First World giver and Third World receiver discourse and it reinforces tourism as neo-colonialism through its indirect political control over developing countries. 

15.How can you improve Volunteer Tourism in regard to the critical points that it might has?

I often feel ashamed these days when I look back to my volunteer tourism activities and because I actively promoted the industry myself. I feel that I have been part of the neo-imperialistic machine that characterizes the capitalistic rather than altruistic trend in volunteer tourism. However, there is no way back and I cannot erase my past experiences. I can only turn my negative experiences into something positive: I have therefore transformed my attitude towards one of service learning (and this interview is part of this transformative attitude). 

I feel that I have been part of the neo-imperialistic machine that characterizes the capitalistic rather than altruistic trend in volunteer tourism.

– Julie Rausenberger

I learned to accept my ‘mistakes’ in the volunteer industry abroad by turning it into something positive these days back at home: because of my own experiences I also have the power to share why volunteer tourism is bad and now I try to encourage people to think twice before they book their volunteer trip, rather than to support them to ‘do more harm than good’. I believe that if all ex volunteer tourists who feel the same can unite and spread this message of a sustainable tourism and inspire other to engage in positive volunteer practices at home and abroad.

Interview conducted by Julia Rommel.

Interviewee: Julie Rausenberger

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