Here are some tips for choosing an ethical volunteer project and being a responsible traveller.
At all times keep in mind the core beliefs needed for any organisation – are they collaborative, transparent, sustainable and accountable?
Why do they exist?
- The needs of the community or conservation area should to come ahead of yours – an organisation should not create the need for volunteering but rather respond to existing needs.
- The organisation should exist to support, add value, empower, educate, encourage, develop and / or grow a local community or conservation area rather than impose, enforce, restrict or reduce anything negatively.
Who do they work with?
- Are they collaborative – do they have reputable links or are they making efforts to collaborate?
- Are they transparent – with who they partner and affiliate with and who they support?
- Is there evidence of how previous volunteers have made a difference?
- Is there a local partner organisation – if you are dealing with an agent, are they working with local organisations and most importantly, are they open about this and who they are?
- How are volunteers selected – are they keen to find out if you will suit and benefit the chosen project?
When do they operate?
- Be wary of the length of the project – is there a preferable length of time communicated for optimum impact for all concerned?
- What happens when you leave – are projects continued without volunteer involvement?
Where do they operate?
- Getting a sense of the surrounding areas helps you to grasp the real need of the project.
- Is the location suitable for volunteers – is it safe, hospitable and provide what you need?
- Is the project venue more a tourist area with superficial volunteer tourism or simply nearby to affluence – this is harder to judge but worth keeping in mind.
How are they funded?
- Are they transparent – are there other sources of funding to help keep the project or organisation sustainable?
- Are they affordable – expensive doesn’t mean over priced or luxurious and cheap doesn’t mean unethical or poorly run, but do your homework on the real costs and where the money goes.
What do they do?
- What are the short and long term goals of the organisation and their projects.
- What are their main focus areas and are they important to the local community and / or surrounding areas?
- Are their operating methods responsible and ethical – local employment, business or charity status, eco-friendly ethos etc?
- Beware of green washing or ‘fancy statements’ – much like any business these days, organisations are aware they have to be more responsible so look for evidence rather than drafted policies.
- Will you receive any training – getting an idea of what your role will be will help you understand how important you are and if you are needed to supplement or compliment local employment.
While tourism contributes massively to the conservation efforts of wildlife and biodiversity around the world, always ask if what you are doing on a project is really needed. For example – as nice as it is to pet a lion cub, is the need for that more for the volunteer’s benefit or the cub’s benefit? Ask questions, be responsible.
Much like the questions around the impact of volunteers on wildlife or conservation areas, is the impact of volunteers into communities a necessity or in place for the volunteer’s benefit. Ask questions, be responsible.
Asking some of the above questions will help you into the right mindset for what organisation and project is right for you. It will also help you be a responsible traveller and always keep ethical travelling in mind.