Your responsibility as a traveller
Your friend just got back from volunteering abroad – and it sounds like she had the trip of a lifetime. You’re excited to get your hands dirty, but before you book a trip, take a step back to assess why you’re volunteering and how your trip will affect the community you visit.
Start by asking yourself: Why do I want to go abroad? What do I hope to achieve?
Planning your ethical volunteer trip
Every aspect of travel has an effect on your host community. You’ll be there temporarily but the people in the community will live with the long-term impacts of your volunteerism. Be realistic about your skills and be honest about what you’re comfortable doing. Think critically about your options and ask tough questions about the trip and the project.
Volunteers and community health
- Did you know that travel health protects both the traveller and the people they meet? Travel health advice is often focused on the individual traveller, but whether you’re living in a community for a week or a year, your health has an impact on the health of the community as a whole. Travellers can become ill from diseases at their destination, but they can also transmit infections to locals.
- In rural areas or places with weak healthcare systems, it can be difficult to get treatment, which puts additional stress on the healthcare system and prevents people from being able to work and earn a livelihood.
- Before you go: Find out about the health risks of your destination – is there malaria? What about dengue or chikungunya? Know how to protect yourself against insect bites and how to be smart about food and water. Don’t forget to visit your health practitioner or a travel clinic to get any necessary vaccinations or medications.
- When you arrive: Use common sense and avoid risks like unprotected sex, tattooing, or contact with animals. You’ll also want to learn about traffic rules since road accidents are the highest cause of injury and mortality among travellers. Wear a helmet when riding a moped or motorcycle.
- Ask yourself: How can you leave the smallest possible eco-footprint? Understand how your visit may affect local ecosystems and limited resources such as electricity and water.
- Before you go: Ask the organization how they mitigate risks or damage to the local environment. If possible, speak to a previous volunteer as well.
- Ask yourself: Will your trip fee support the community you’re visiting or do the funds go somewhere else? Will the project be sustainable after you leave?
- Thoroughly research travel companies that aren’t directly affiliated with the organization you’re volunteering with. While some travel companies have an ongoing relationship with local organizations, others have little contact with local groups and offer vacation packages with limited volunteerism.
- Volunteers book their trips with the best of intentions, but some forms of volunteering can cause more harm than good. Orphanage volunteering is one example. High turnover among international volunteers in orphanages has been shown to be damaging to children’s development.
- Before you go: Thoroughly research the organization’s website, reports, and media coverage. Ask the organization about how they approach their projects and how they measure the long-term impacts of projects. Ask to speak to a previous volunteer to hear their experience.
This post was written with resources from Sheila C. K. Hall, RGN SCM MSc (T.Med). Sheila organizes and teaches courses at TREC (Travel-Health Related Education and Care) in the UK. Visit http://www.trectravelhealth.co.uk for more information.
Learn more about ethical volunteering
By Daphne Hendsbee and Tullia Marcolongo.
Photo by FreeImages.com/Elias Minasi