On Volunteering for the Sake of Volunteering

Coming from Australia, I’d never actually seen a gun in person before, but Wilson had been nothing but casual as he slung his hunting rifle over his shoulder and led us down the path into the forest. The trees were so closely packed that only fingertips of sunlight could touch upon my face and I wondered how we would be able to see any animals in the deep twisting labyrinth of foliage. These are skills that can be taught, which Wilson does in his lessons to the small groups of volunteers that visit Bario to learn hunting skills and work on community projects.

Barking deer are naturally nervous creatures and so you need to trick them if you want to get them close enough to shoot. This is what Wilson explained to me as he threaded a long blade of grass between his fingers and shaped it between his lips. The pressure of his breath on the leaf emitted a shrill pitch that mimicked the call of the barking deer. Wilson’s house backs onto primary rainforest and he is well-versed in the art of survival and hunting skills.

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I met Wilson by the side of the road in Bario. The small Malaysian Borneo village, accessible only by air, was the kind of community where you didn’t think twice about jumping in a complete stranger’s car. Wilson’s rough and mud-slicked white 4WD was necessary for navigating the windy logging roads that linked his hilltop home to the rest of the village. He invited my friend and I to visit his house and we crushed ourselves onto a single seat that could barely contain us through the endless bumps and rolls of the mud-destroyed logging track.

The house was isolated and barely built, but it subscribed to the notion that location is everything. Wilson’s property looked out over a verdant green landscape, with the village of Bario nestled amongst mountains and shrouded in the mist that hugged the valley for the entire time that I was there.

To the back of the property stretched green rainforest, which was the focal point of the survival and hunting skills that Wilson teaches volunteers. But on the other side of the coin is the community projects undertaken by the groups. Wilson pointed one out to us as we drove back to our guesthouse with the barking deer carcass in tow. The centre of town consists of six shops, including an internet cafe that is erratically open a couple of times a week, and a stretch of grass that has an abandoned playground on it.

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“This was the volunteer project from two years ago” said Wilson, pointing to the playground. It isn’t used. Shiny and inviting to the children’s eyes, the project is impractical in a community where children spend their days either at school or under the watchful eye of the women in the community longhouses.

So what function did this project serve? The volunteer tourism industry seems to be over saturated with programs that fulfil a need to “do good” on any level. This is often at the expense of focused programs that match appropriately skilled volunteers to programs that correctly utilise these skills.

In particular, I find it disturbing and counterintuitive that the majority of construction projects require no previous construction experience from volunteers. They simply require funding and volunteers with a desire to “do good”. While volunteers’ intentions are clearly well-meaning, they need to make smarter choices of projects that they can meaningfully contribute to.

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So what should potential volunteers be considering when choosing an appropriate program?

Are my skills matched to the program? A lack of previous experience for projects like construction or teaching could be harmful if it needs extensive training or constant supervision.

Where is the money going? Many large international volunteering companies charge excessive fees that factor in overhead costs, marketing and profit on top of funds that actually benefit the target communities.

Was the community involved in the decision-making process? Projects by large companies should be in line with community needs and preferably aligned with local organisations.

How sustainable is the project? For example, projects such as English-teaching positions that only last a couple of weeks are unlikely to actually benefit the education of children.

It’s not wrong to want to do good and make a difference, but volunteers need to be making an informed choice of smarter projects that are matched to their abilities and the needs of communities.

Have you ever taken part in a volunteering project that seemed to make little real difference? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

By | 2017-07-21T14:43:47+00:00 May 20th, 2017|ethical travel|13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Medha Verma July 7, 2017 at 2:33 pm - Reply

    That is an interesting article. I’ve never volunteered for a project like this before but I have definitely thought about it, just haven’t come around to picking the organisation to do it with. Your tips and suggestions are good, will keep them in mind, thanks for sharing!

    • Her Travel Therapy July 8, 2017 at 1:40 pm - Reply

      Thank you for the feedback!

  2. forever roaming the world July 7, 2017 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    This is a great post and some sound advice there. I’m thinking about doing some volunteering on my next trip but I will make sure I chose the project wisely where I can actually be of use and not just do it for the hell of it.

    • Her Travel Therapy July 8, 2017 at 1:40 pm - Reply

      I’m glad to hear that. Where are you thinking of travelling next?

  3. Lisa July 8, 2017 at 12:50 am - Reply

    I know exactly what you mean Kate. Unfortunately, there are many of these voluntourism organisations, where some of the local projects aren’t as trustworthy with the volunteers as they may think. Such a shame, especially when the cause is so good.

    • Her Travel Therapy July 8, 2017 at 1:39 pm - Reply

      Have you experienced this first-hand?

  4. jusztravel July 8, 2017 at 3:36 am - Reply

    I agree with your points. Those are all really good questions to ask oneself that I haven’t thought of. I’ve never had the experience of volunteering abroad but maybe someday!

    • Her Travel Therapy July 8, 2017 at 1:37 pm - Reply

      Where would you want to volunteer if you could?

  5. beccajtalbot July 11, 2017 at 12:32 am - Reply

    This is a really interesting read – I’ve never done any volunteering projects as part of my travels, but it is something I’d considered for future travelling. However I think I’m gonna have to do some proper research before I agree to do anything and part with my money. I may think I’m doing good, but is it really beneficial to the community? x

  6. 2 Backpackers July 11, 2017 at 1:21 am - Reply

    This is an interesting article. I have never tried volunteering before. I guess I have know about it before venturing.

  7. Jerome Carreon July 11, 2017 at 4:19 am - Reply

    This is a great article. I never did any volunteering before. But if I will be asked to join for any volunteering I will make sure that I will have the skills to join before I agree.

  8. halleywright July 11, 2017 at 3:00 pm - Reply

    I completely agree that all of those points you brought up are important in the decision making process. Great read!

  9. Laura Barton July 11, 2017 at 11:05 pm - Reply

    I’d really love to volunteer while travelling one day. You gave some great advice on what type of questions I should ask myself before I do. Great post !!

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