ETHICAL TRAVELLER Catherine Mack on responsible volunteering
'VOLUNTOURISM" is a holiday consisting of a volunteering experience. Gap-year time is approaching, and with worldwide crises regularly hitting our screens, there are lots of reasons for volunteers to get out there and make a difference.
But there are sharks out there, especially in the voluntourism sector.
The voluntourism market is still unregulated. Ask about the organisation's client-vetting process, how it chooses its projects, how to contact previous volunteers, how sustainable the projects are, if police-checks are carried out on volunteers, if they are profit-making, and how the money you pay is spent.
According to volunteering organisation People and Places (www.travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk
), only 30 per cent of organisations claim to carry out police checks on their clients. "If they claim to do it in less than six weeks, then they aren't really doing it, as it is a lengthy process," they tell me.
I spoke to two Irish volunteers who opted for People and Places. Both were extremely impressed with the organisation's thorough service, vetting, support and local knowledge.
Una, a 27-year-old teacher from Galway, spent her SSIA money volunteering in a care centre in the South African township of Missionvale, which feeds about 700 people a day and offers primary school and medical facilities.
Dubliner Emma (29) is about to embark on her first volunteering trip. She liked People and Places because "they valued my business skills, and knew best where to place me according to my experience. I was also able to contact all previous volunteers for advice." Consequently she has been matched up with a project in Mapoch, a remote part of South Africa, providing local people with bicycles to get to school, shops and other important services. It is now developing into a tourism business, which is where Emma's business planning skills will come in.
Such matching is central to People and Place's ethos. A trip like this is not all about you and your needs - it is about the local communities' needs.
Volunteers are often accused of indulging in tokenistic gestures. Una disagrees with this attitude.
"When you go there, you see that the need for help is huge. I didn't feel like I was alleviating any guilt by going. They don't even want what I have in life. They just want help and a bit of a smile."
When she returns to her job in September, Una will continue fund-raising for the care centre it broke her heart to leave.
Finally, you don't need to be twentysomething to volunteer. There is growing demand for adults with teaching, medical, engineering, building and legal skills around the world. For men, women, singles, couples and even families.
This article appeared in The Irish Times on Saturday 28th June 2008
Contributor: Cathy Mack