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I understand that volunteering in underdeveloped countries is not magically helpful under all circummstances, and that housing and feeding a volunteer costs money, so some volunteer opportunities involve the volunteer paying something for the experience in addition to buying your own plane tickets.

I can guess that some of these opportunities are door-openers, letting volunteers do things they couldn't do if they just showed up in a strange country, and providing a measure of safety and security. But I can also guess that some of them are more like travel agencies than charitable organizations, charging well-meaning and well-heeled idealists more than they'd pay for a luxury lying-around-in-a-resort vacation. Volunteering is one thing: donating to someone's profit margin is another.

How can you evaluate an organization to know which kind of company you're dealing with?

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FWIW, I've never met anyone in the international development community who had much positive to say about "voluntourism." Development is not just about digging a well or painting a school, it is about building institutions to maintain them, and that cannot be done in a week— it can't even really be done in a Peace Corps volunteer's two-year stint, for which the Peace Corps is criticized. The time and resources required to transport a visitor to a work site and train them would be better spent on hiring development professionals and training locals, who aren't often overtrained or overemployed. –  choster Feb 11 '13 at 22:37
    
@choster You're so right. The Fair Trade Volunteering thing insists on "LONG TERM COMMITMENT TO THE PROJECT (MINIMUM 3 YEARS)" - do you think that makes it ok/better? –  Kate Gregory Feb 11 '13 at 23:11
    
On a related note: "Does Voluntourism Do More Harm Than Good?" –  Ankur Banerjee Feb 14 '13 at 0:57
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4 Answers

There's a fine line indeed on whether 'voluntourism' is good or bad. There have been cases where so-called volunteering organisations run for-profit enterprises which exploit, say, orphanages under the guise of doing good. One of the best guides I've read while doing my own research into such opportunities is by Ethical Volunteering who have published a guide to how to evaluate volunteering opportunities.

Good and ethical volunteering organisations will publish reports on their projects. Many of these proper volunteering organisations also partner with local organisations to arrange these opportunities, and these local organisations are usually registered charities in their home countries. Depending on the laws of the country, it's very likely that they are required to file financial reports on their activities - and with some sleuthing you may be able to find reports on their financials or news reports on the organisations themselves to find out how they spend their money. A big red flag should be if an organisation spends more on fundraising than on actual projects.

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This question is difficult to answer. Some of the organizations also use the opportunity to raise funds. IN many cases volunteering might actually cost you more then a "a luxury lying-around-in-a-resort vacation". From a organizations perspective having strangers volunteering provides risks. Who is responsible if something goes wrong, what if a the person get severely sick. The person might not fit in the group. Other psychological and social problems might appear. So there better be a great incentive for volunteering organizations to host travelers.

I would say that the best way to evaluate is to ask your self what benefits do the organization have in hosting you.

Other reasons could be good PR. If you are a good blogger, you could spread the news. Organizations like KIVA, work with these types of volunteers.

Or you might be their next employee. I was told that if you want to work in that area, the best way to get in, is actually by volunteering.

But in most cases the money you bring will be the main benefit for them hosting you. To be worthwhile the margin better be good.

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But what if your money is going, in the main, not to locals or a local organization, but a US or European based company that is just making a fortune from the good wishes of US and European tourists who think they're helping? That's what I want to avoid –  Kate Gregory Feb 9 '13 at 12:56
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Companies and voluntourism, in my opinion, don't go together. I would not use a company proxy to channel money, at all, in these cases. Companies have a main objective in making money. If you do pay through a non-local organization, I think that you can be sure a lot of money will be tagged as "overhead". I would go directly to the place you want to volunteer and ask if you can. –  andra Feb 9 '13 at 13:18
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The Ethical Volunteering website appears dormant, and email to them bounces back saying the mailbox is full. The guide is of course still valid and useful. A particular tour provider mentioned on the EV website is a founding member of something called Fair Trade Volunteering which seems like an excellent initiative. One way of evaluating an opportunity might be asking if they are members of this group. Of course, if only 2% of the "good guys" and 0% of the "bad guys" are members, then not being a member doesn't carry much information.

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Your question touches upon a much more fundamental issue, which is the actual objectively measurable benefit of development aid. Many conservatives and plenty of those having worked in development for extended periods of time seriously question the potential impact of development aid. The former out of principle, the latter through personal experience. And, over the last few years, the general opinion appears to slowly be moving more towards a consensus that the only type of aid that has the potential for some structural success is emergency aid (following earthquakes, flooding and the like).

And this is not without merit, at least on the face of it. Think about it, outside of emergency aid, every volunteer, or even every development worker's position, in the end, takes up a job that could and perhaps even should, have been filled by a local. Jetting in some outsider, to jet them out a while later, is not sustainable. If local skills are lacking, bringing in the outside specialist is not suddenly going to create local specialists with the same educational basis, which apparently was required to create the specialist in the first place. The only structural solution, then, is to work on the education system.

But, to go even further, perhaps your implicitly stated objective, of 'finding the good guys in international aid' should not be your focus at all. As the Peace Corps, arguably an organization that at least has no direct financial objectives with its work, wikipedia page states, their mission is threefold:

  • providing technical assistance;
  • helping people outside the United States to understand American culture;
  • helping Americans to understand the cultures of other countries

Not at all focussed on delivering 'aid', but, primarily, focussed on building a cultural bridge between the host and American culture, fostering understanding and also perhaps why an organization like IESC is generally reasonably successful; those sent abroad through IESC are doing it because they like the challenge and don't care much about the financial consequences, except for the participants typically wanting to optimize the relevant tasks, financially and organizationally, for reaching their objectives.

In other words, if you can find an opportunity that brings you satisfaction, for whatever reasons you value, it's probably a good choice.

Now, if you worry about the financial integrity of any organization operating in international development, immediate impact might be relevant, but not long term sustainability, meaning that, in the end, immediate impact, also, is irrelevant, unless it's part of some emergency aid package. No program that flies 'volunteers', let alone 'paid specialists', from one side of the world to the other, for a short period of time, to put them in a social bubble where they have no clue about the local norms and values, can have any long term positive impact.

So, perhaps more directly answering your implicit question, the only structural long term benefit can be had through emergency aid, though even there it's not always easy to separate the fortune seekers from organizations that try to make a real change. But, here, as for any 'regular' commercial business, opaque organizational structures and lack of independently verifiable success are good indicators of a sub-optimal organization. In other words, if you can't do your due diligence, the organization is probably hiding something.

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