Voluntourism: Warm fuzzies or cold, hard cash?

It’s an idea South Africans react to with astonishment. Tourists are paying top dollar, pound or euro to work for charitable projects in other countries. The idea of voluntourism, as it’s known, was pioneered in South Africa and has mushroomed into an international industry worth millions. The question is: does voluntourism do more harm than good?

Volunteer travel isn’t new. It’s been around for decades. One of the best-known volunteer travel organisations is the US Peace Corps, started in 1961. Peace Corps volunteers work on aid projects in other countries and are paid a living allowance and a lump sum when they return home. Until recently, most volunteer travel organisations provided food and accommodation, if not cash. But voluntourism has turned that on its head. Now it’s the volunteers who pay.

Billy Fourie, managing director of the Wild at Heart group, was looking for a way to finance conservation projects that weren’t receiving funds. He thought international tourists looking for a hands-on experience might want to help. When he launched his concept of voluntourism at the World Travel Conference in Mexico in 2001, the travel industry laughed at him. “Nobody’s going to pay to work,” he was told. But after years of slow growth, the voluntourism industry is suddenly exploding. As an unregulated industry, it’s wide open to abuse.

“It seems like everybody is trying to bring volunteers into their organisations these days,” says Jeremy Stafford of Voluntours. “They think, ‘This is fantastic – people are paying to work for you.’” There are stories about game reserves near Kruger that start a volunteering project and get naïve 18 year olds from Brighton paying to build their fences. They have plenty of funds, but they’ve cottoned onto an opportunity for free labour. “It’s true,” says Fourie. “A lot of people have seen it as a quick way of making money.”

The worst culprits are the large overseas travel agencies who market volunteer tourism projects and slap on massive mark-ups – often as much as 75 per cent. “The volunteer pays £800 to come out here for a week, but the overseas company gets more than half of that just for answering a phone call,” according to Ruth Odigie, operations manager at You2Africa. “We know of an organisation in the UK which charges £2,500 more for the same dolphin programme we sell,” Stafford told us.

When volunteers arrive, they could find they’re on their own, with no support, training or orientation. “Most companies will recruit volunteers, send them off and let go,” Stafford says.

It’s not just the volunteers who risk being exploited. Last year, Voluntary Service Overseas criticised voluntourism for hindering aid projects. The charity cited a case in which a volunteer teacher in Africa found she had made a local colleague redundant. Sometimes communities have to look after and even finance their volunteers.

Many companies don’t do reference checking or screening of volunteers, many of whom will be working with children. And like the volunteers, communities are frequently given unrealistic expectations about what volunteering can accomplish.

Despite the pitfalls, everyone involved believes voluntourism has enormous potential and that many companies are getting it right. “It just needs to be monitored, with proper guidelines,” says Marina Scheffers, inbound programme manager at SASTS Working Adventures.

In November 2007, Voluntours and Calabash Tours published a code of good practice for responsible volunteer operators. As well as ethical and procedural guidelines, it includes important legal requirements, such as special liability insurance and public driving permits, which are often overlooked. There are plans to launch a South African Youth and Student Educational Travel Confederation that will help monitor volunteer tourism. “It has to happen,” says Fourie, who’s also trying to get the South African government to introduce a special visa for voluntourists. “We must make sure we do this properly.”

In the meantime, Odigie maintains that most volunteers are happy when they get to South Africa because they can see where their work and their money are going.  “Every minute I spent here was worthwhile,” said Maytal Schmidt, a 19 year old from Maryland who worked at an orphanage in Midrand through Voluntours. “If I could be here for longer, I would.”

Why don’t South Africans volunteer?

“South Africans want to make money, so unless it’s linked to an internship, they don’t volunteer,” claims Marina Scheffers. “South Africa doesn’t really have a culture of volunteering,” agrees Ruth Odigie. But Billy Fourie believes South Africans would volunteer – if they could afford to. “International agencies have forced the prices. It costs more than R20,000 for a couple of weeks. What young person here can afford that?” He’s started setting up affordable volunteering projects in Brazil. Until then, charitable South Africans will have to begin at home.

Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Getaway Magazine.

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