With the holidays quickly approaching, many of us are looking for ways to give back to our community. But what about volunteering for your vacation? Volunteer travel, or voluntourism, is traveling while volunteering for a charitable cause and is often carried out through a voluntourism agency responsible for placing volunteers in participating organizations. We cannot think of a better way to give back then giving up your “vacation time”to help those in need.
While many travelers have a well-intended desire to give back to the communities they visit, volunteering in disenfranchised communities is far more complicated than it seems. This is especially true when working with populations whose culture is different from your own.
Before participating in a volunteer travel program, it’s important to ask yourself some serious questions about the agency you’re working with and your own motivations. We have put together a brief guide to help you consider the ethics of international community development and evaluate your volunteer travel opportunities.
Do your homework
Spend some time getting to know the community you’re going to serve before you interact with them. It can take years to understand a community thoroughly enough to build rapport and trust. While circumstances often prevent us from being able to spend years in a community before beginning work with them, a little research can go a long way in helping you comprehend the likely complex situation you’re about to step into. Showing up to a volunteer-abroad situation unequipped can impede your ability to work effectively and can lead to cultural misunderstandings and offenses. Daughters Rising partnered with the Chai Lai Orchid, for example, and worked within a rural community in Northern Thailand comprised of Thai people and hill tribe people, like our friends Cuado and Nong Fai. Many we help are from both Thailand and Burma, the latter of whom arrived in Thailand after fleeing ethnic persecution in their home communities. This forms an extremely intricate social dynamic involving factors like ethnicity, nationality, multiple languages, varied backgrounds, life experiences, and legal and social status. Just learning about the situation of Burmese refugees for the first time can be a shocking emotional experience. Coming into a situation with cultural competency and respect for others’ backgrounds can help you work in a more meaningful way. This is true no matter where you decide to volunteer, either at home or abroad.
Avoid faux pas
Being culturally appropriate can help you avoid being viewed in an undesirable way. Behaving or dressing inappropriately can send unintended messages about the kind of person you are or what you’re trying to accomplish. Being culturally considerate in our interactions and the way we present ourselves can help us work without the distraction of cultural mishaps. In our experience, little things can go a long way. For example, in Thai Buddhist culture, it’s unacceptable to touch a monk, touch someone on the head, or sleep with your feet pointed towards a spirit house–knowing this can help us avoid unwittingly making problems for others. On the other hand, being a bit more reserved in our mannerisms and dress, waiing as a sign of courtesy, and using polite prefixes can help smooth your transition into a society that highly values politeness.
Don’t “rescue,” empower
The ultimate goal of community organizations is to work ourselves out of a job. This happens when the community you serve attains complete self-determination. Be aware of viewing the community you’re working in as needy people who require your help. The idea of “helping,” while well intended, ultimately serves volunteers better than the communities in which they work. People are aware of what’s best for them, their families, and their communities. They’re not innately incapable of making good decisions or providing for themselves, but rather are facing systemic obstacles to their success. Many of us bring a subconscious “otherism” to our dealings with people from different backgrounds that requires a conscious effort to undo in order to have ethical and non-patronizing interactions with the community.
Consider the long term-impacts on the community. When working with exploited or abused populations, short-term involvement can have a negative impact. Volunteering at an orphanage for a day may be a warm and fuzzy experience for a volunteer, but can reinforce feelings of abandonment and confusion on the part of the orphans. Truly doing good work in a community means leaving it better off than if you weren’t there.
Give what you’re good at
Are you great at web design? Help the organization you want to be involved with by working from home on their web design. While it may not be as alluring as traveling abroad to build mud houses in the jungle, the community will appreciate the contribution of a skill they don’t have far greater than “help” with something they’ve already mastered. For example, Daughters Rising never tasks volunteers with manual labor because the local people are far more skilled and efficient at working with local building materials and tools, and doing so would detract from job opportunities for our friends at local tourist “villages” who have little other sources of income.
Volunteering costs organizations financial and staff resources. The overwhelming majority of organizations need donations more than volunteers, so it only makes sense to volunteer if you offer something that the existing staff can’t provide.
Considering volunteering with us at the Chai Lai Orchid?
Please see our volunteer program for more information on our current volunteer needs and application process.
And remember: volunteering isn’t all about going abroad–your community needs you too! Don’t forget to look in your own backyard for volunteering opportunities this holiday season and all yearlong.