Every year there are major disasters around the world causing widespread damage to property and the environment that takes months or years and sometimes decades to rebuild. After the storm most locals are too busy trying to deal with their own devastation to help others in need. Things we take for granted like clean drinking water, shelter, food, electricity, heat or air conditioning are suddenly stripped from their existence and they are forced into survival mode. There are countless organizations like the American Red Cross, FEMA, Project Hope and many others that aid in disaster relief but unfortunately in many cases the aid in not enough. Take Puerto Rico and the Dominican for example, there are still thousands of people without electricity, almost half of the businesses are still closed and some of the rural communities still do not have clean drinking water. As other disasters occur the resources used to rebuild these communities are now dispersed to the new disaster areas. The communities still need our help so this is where volentourism comes in.
What is voluntourism? According to the website Projects-Abroad.org, Voluntourism is “A combination of volunteering and tourism, voluntourism is a popular form of international travel that allows you to contribute to sustainable development while exploring a new country and culture. Voluntourism is a similar experience to volunteer travel or a volunteer vacation.”
When you get involved you are not just helping with the project at hand you are also contributing to the local economy with your your tourist dollars. While staying there you will find plenty to do and see and the communities rely heavily on your money spent.
I think it is important to mention that not all voluntourism is good for the local community in which they are trying to help. Take for example the article written by Jacob Kushner of the New York Times, He talks about a group of elderly Christian missionaries that were trying (struggling) to build a school along side a Methodist Church in Haiti. These missionaries were attempting to mix concrete by hand with shovels but were obviously not virile young cement masons and knew nothing about construction. Meanwhile there was a group of able-body locals who had the know-how and the ability to build it but had to sit back and watch as the volunteers did their work. Their intention was good but here sat men that needed the work, were able to do the work and knew how to do the work correctly but were stuck being spectators. So you have to ask, could the money spent making this trek to Haiti be better spent paying these men to build it? The answer is clearly yes.
That being said, voluntourism has many positive effects as well. The negative publicity is not all warranted. Yes these are cases cases like the one mentioned above that can potentially do more harm than good but there are also many organizations like Discover Corps and Projects Abroad that utilize the unskilled labor volunteers in managed projects that supports the effort not hindering it. It also created a deeper level of understanding of the issues these communities are dealing with which also helps to further spread the word of the work that still needs to be done.
So a solution to this would be to choose the right project to get involved with that best suits your skill set. Pick an organization that has a successful history of helping communities, have sustainability and can help train locals after the rebuilding process is complete and an organization that is financially responsible. Also consider whether this is a one time visit or if you plan on returning in the near future to continue with your volunteer efforts. If this is a one time visit I would strongly suggest getting involved with a project that is already well established and has a strong management core already in place.
So before you book your next vacation consider volunteering. Your efforts go beyond your own personal satisfaction of feeling important. Your efforts can make a real impact on the people and local economy. For more information about being a voluntourist please visit the links below.