Volunteer tourism, or “Voluntourism” comes in many shapes and sizes. Just like any holiday, or travel plan it can be adapted to suit the tourist or traveller. There’s a lot to think about though, and that’s where the “responsible” bit comes in.
Irresponsible volunteer tourism
You probably don’t want to be volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia right now – Why? Because so many people want to volunteer with orphans in Cambodia, that unscrupulous operators are filling houses with children (that still have parents) just so that wealthy tourists can see and work with them for a few weeks. Siem Reap, home of the fabulous and beautiful Angkor Wat, has a population of 100,000 and 35 orphanages. That ratio is wrong, and it’s driven by irresponsible volunteer tourism. Responsible Travel has stopped offering all orphanage voluntourism packages while it fully investigates the situation.
Responsible Responsible tourism
During my recent adventure in Thailand, I was introduced to a responsible volunteer tourism operator. Set up 11 years ago as a partnership between local Thai Gaweechat Joompaula (known as Toto) and Swedish social entrepreneur Sven Mauleon, Openmind Projects is role model in responsible volunteer tourism. Now they operate in four countries, in partnership with over 70 grass roots projects.
“The background to a lot of the problems in this world, poverty, pollution, environmental destruction, is knowledge… Knowledge brings awareness, and a motivation to change. Helping people to learn, Helping people to learn how to learn, and helping people use new technology. That is our mission. That is Openmind Projects”
What experience can volunteers abroad expect?
Sven has been a management consultant for many years, working all over the world and trains business professionals in cross cultural sensitivity. He takes volunteer training and education seriously.
“Overseas volunteers are given activity based learning, and cultural training. You have to understand that there will be misunderstandings. Don’t expect to be working as efficiently as you would be at home. “
Take Josh from Australia. He was a business systems analyst, working to help run the systems behind the Australian immigration websites. Although only in is mid twenties, he has serious technical knowledge and skills.
He gave himself six months to try some volunteer services. Originally he was interested in perhaps finding some volunteer construction projects. An email exchange with Sven convinced him to think about utilising his existing skills.
Often the local workforce can be employed to do construction work, but not many of the local workforce will have Josh’s business analyst skills. So Josh was better placed in the Openmind Project’s head office, working on capacity building and streamlining their business systems.
Josh is adding value to the organisation, not substituting a local workforce.
The reason I know about Josh? Because he took a break from his business systems work to come and join Fha and I on the Little Big Project.
Of course it’s fun as well to volunteer, and you get the chance to see and do things that you never would otherwise. It looks that way in the pictures too, but there is serious work done behind the scenes.
The final words come from Sven
“We don’t want a doctor painting walls. We want to match the skills of the volunteer with the skills needed by the local community.”
And that’s what responsible volunteer tourism is all about. Well done, Openmind Projects, keep up the great work.