Picking a volunteer vacation is a lot like dating
The first line was exciting enough for me to read on the article “Vacations with a payoff” by Margaret Sheridan in the Chicago Tribune.
As she rightly points out, choice for volunteer vacations are plenty and especially today with so many organisations working in the field. It’s disheartening to think that Volunteering abroad or Volunteer vacations has actually become more of a business; so yes it involves a lot of work to find the right fit – the right partner organisation, the right location, the right project etc.
One of the biggest criticism (apart from orphanage trade) for Volunteer travel is that much of it is short term and one does more harm than good if going only for a short duration. A study by Human Sciences Research Council found that volunteering projects are designed keeping the western volunteer’s needs in mind than that of the local community. That the short engagement leads to adverse emotional and psychological effects especially on children. Also that local population is denied the much needed jobs if they are being filled in by volunteers, who actually pay for taking up those roles.
As Margaret Reid pointed in her article, it is important that you as a volunteer do not undermine the local staff. If your ‘voluntary’ position is a paid position for a local, it is best to continue that payment because he/she also has a family back at home.
Former Peace Corps volunteer, Margaret Sheridan shares her experience and that of many more to show that it may not always be so. She says that while you can’t change the world in a week, it is still worthwhile to do your bit, even if it is for a week! And she supports it through experiences of many volunteers:
In just one week, she along with 11 other volunteers pooled in their skills from different fields to create 22 handmade visual aids for subjects covering biology, science, geography, health and mathematics for an elementary school near Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.
In two weeks, Barbara Cherem, 66, planned lessons in English and current affairs for students at La Molina National Agrarian University in Lima.
“The novelty of travel — new sites, souvenirs, photos — wears off with age. What’s gratifying is using my teaching skills to learn a culture, firsthand, from its people,” – Barbara Cherem
The article moves on to more volunteering stories where people have not changed the world but made a little difference to it in their own ways. It is a hearty read when one usually comes across criticism when the topic of volunteering abroad is approached.
To answer the question of “should I or should I not go on a volunteer vacation? [given all the arguments of short-term volunteering not being much effective]”; I will have to say “I would”.
It might be true that I would be of much more help volunteering in my own country as I already know the culture and I am the local! But volunteer vacations combine the two things I love – volunteering and traveling and once in a while I would love to live with the local community and explore a new culture from close while putting my time and skills to good use. However, it is important not get overly romantic about the idea of volunteer vacation. It’s important to be careful in intentions and actions so that we do good. There needs to be a good amount of ground work before embarking on volunteer travel even if it is for a short duration. I would make sure that my time & effort pays off for both me and those I volunteer for.
We would love to learn more from your experiences and views on volunteer travel. Please do share with us in comments here or by writing to us.