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Volunteering Abroad – The Ugly Side and How to do it Ethically

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Hey there! Today I’ve got an interview about Volunteering Abroad with Sarah Carroll who runs ‘The Ethical Volunteer’. I featured her awesome Best Hardware Shop photo from Malawi.

Sarah Carroll - The Ethical Volunteer

Anyway, she started this up because she was annoyed at how volunteer agencies profiteer from travellers and don’t funnel their funds to the local community to benefit them. In fact, sometimes volunteering projects cause more harm than good. I’m keen to pick her brains on how you can ethically volunteer around the world. I don’t know that much about it, so it’s good to chat to someone who knows via first hand experiences.

Here is a video about what she does to give you an idea.

Anyway, here is the interview. You can follow @EthicalVol on Twitter and on Facebook. And also check out their indiegogo site where they are fundraising for their project to help volunteers find the best way to volunteer overseas.

Volunteering Abroad – Some Tips For Doing it Overseas

The Travel Tart: Hi Sarah, thanks for the chat about volunteering abroad. For those people out there in internet land who have decided to take a break from posting what they had for lunch on Facebook, please give us a quick blurb about yourself and why you set up The Ethical Volunteer.

Sarah Carroll: Hey Travel Tart! The Ethical Volunteer is a reaction to the way overseas volunteering has become an industry. The way I see it, agencies that charge huge sums of money without assessing the impacts their volunteers have on communities throughout the developing world are causing harm and, in essence, profiteering from poverty. The Ethical Volunteer aims to help volunteers to side-step such agencies, to promote the use of local hostels and lodges and to help projects directly connect with potential volunteers.

African Shop Picture

The Travel Tart: I’ll put this one out there straight up. Is volunteering abroad basically just another big business opportunity for big multinational corporations?

Sarah Carroll: Yep, that’s about right. Just type the words “volunteering abroad” into Google and see what you come up with – myriad agencies selling you holidays. If they were to say: “We are a travel agency, not a charity. We charge you a lot because we want to. And, by the way, we don’t really vet our projects” then I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with them. But they don’t. They use pictures of cute little lion cubs (because the best thing you can do for a wild animal is pet it and get it used to humans?) or forlorn helpless orphans (because it’s in the orphans best interest to have transient, intimate contact with foreigners?) to make you think they are somehow “in it for the good of the people”. They are not, their profits come first and if the communities come anywhere, it’s a distant second.

The Travel Tart: What negative impacts on local communities have you personally witnessed from volunteering projects?

Sarah Carroll: hmmmmm. I don’t have long enough to answer that. Basically it comes down to misconceptions – that idea of the “white in shining armour” coming in to save the day without thinking of what they are actually doing or what the consequences may be. As the old saying goes, ‘Good intentions are not enough’. Volunteers need to be aware of their impacts.

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What have I personally seen? Well, I have seen orphanages opened by unscrupulous business men looking to attract the donations of volunteers and exploiting local children in the process. I have seen classrooms built by organisations that then leave it in the hands of a community that do not have the funds or resources to run it. I have seen groups of volunteers taking the jobs of local builders in the misguided belief that they are helping. Good intentions are not enough and volunteers, more so than the average tourist, need to be cognitive of their impacts.

The Travel Tart: If that is the case, are there any positive impacts of volunteering abroad?

Volunteering Abroad - Overseas Projects

Sarah Carroll: Of course! The exchange of skills and ideas, the solidarity born of peoples from different cultures and backgrounds working together towards a common goal and the practical contributions volunteers can make towards the day to day running of projects. Volunteers can help raise awareness of issues and assist projects with fundraising efforts or developmental goals.  And, of course, there is a positive economic impact if the money the volunteer pays to cover their expenses trickles down into the local community. But these positive impacts can only be felt if the volunteer is placed in a well-managed role within a well-managed organisation that is working in the best interests of the community.

The Travel Tart: In that case, how do you find volunteer projects overseas that actually benefit the local community and don’t rip off travellers?

Sarah Carroll: Well making sure our partners don’t “rip-off travellers” is the easy part – in general we don’t partner with projects that charge money. For every project we highlight, we also partner with a hostel/lodge as that separates the volunteers’ expenses from their project placement and so helps to ensure that everything is transparent.

As for ensuring placements will be of benefit to the local community, that part takes longer! You need to assess the motivations of the organisation in looking for volunteers and you need to analyse their structure. For example, are they run by the community with board members from various sectors of the community or just by one man with a “heart of gold”? Do they have a clear developmental path and goals or are their goals generic and ill-defined? Are they sustainable or are they dependent on the involvement/donations of volunteers? Do they have criteria in place that allows them to assess their impacts and re-evaluate their methods? Do they use promotional language when attracting donors or volunteers? Do they protect those they serve or run the risk of exploiting the vulnerable (eg, allowing foreigners intimate access to vulnerable children). Do they look for local volunteers as well as foreign?

African Boat

At The Ethical Volunteer we have a rather rigorous initial vetting process that covers issues like those I just mentioned. To be quite honest, those that are not fully committed to ensuring their projects are of benefit to the community generally can’t be bothered going through all of our forms and checks! For those that do, we follow up with phone conversations, background checks and then finally we visit them and see for ourselves what’s going on. Then we film them so you too can see!

Filming Volunteer Projects

The Travel Tart: You set up a hostel in Tanzania which was called ‘Hostel Hoff’ (named after David Hasselhoff) in 2006 when you were 25 and ran it for 4 years. Does the front door have a montage of his chest hair glued all over the place? And does it pay homage to the Hoff with thousands of his images littering the joint?

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Sarah Carroll: Oh God yeah! It was on my website – ‘every volunteer must bring a picture of the Hoff or a Baywatch DVD’. I had one guy generate an image of the Hoff from thousands of smaller Hoff images, others brought me autographs, pics, t-shirts. I had people arrive (generally Swedes for some reason) that genuinely thought I was in love with the Hoff, and they still came to stay! I just came up with the name one night after a couple of drinks, thought it was the most ridiculous thing I could call a hostel and so I did!

Hostel Hoff

The Travel Tart: You’ve mentioned that while you were running Hostel Hoff, that you fundraised around 80,000 Euros in that time and worked on numerous projects and had 20 volunteers at any time. Sounds like a lot of fun. But you also mentioned you came across some disturbing stuff, like sitting in a room, you versus 12 pastors, trying to argue with them why a 14 year old boy in their care shouldn’t be having sexual relations with a female employee. You have also had 2 locals try to have you arrested and deported because they “wanted your hostel”. This sounds like the Robert Mugabe method of eviction! Are you amazed that you’re still alive?

Sarah Carroll: ha! Sounds so dramatic doesn’t it? Ah sure, there are psychos everywhere! I guess if I had known in the beginning what I would be up against I might have run scared but by the time it rolled around, well you just tackle it head on, don’t you?

But, let’s be honest, most of the problems come down to culture clashes, and that’s my problem as an outsider, not Tanzania’s problem. I was reading the other day that only 5% of women in Tanzania hold a formal job, and yet there I was with 9 staff at my hostel, on the board of an organisation, running around trying to organise all manner of things. Of course I was going to run into problems! And I’m not particularly religious, so having to deal with the absolute reverence shown towards the clergy (who ran the majority of projects) was also difficult from time to time.

But setting up the hostel, meeting hundreds of people from around the world and getting involved in numerous community projects was a fantastic experience, one I will never be able to match! As you yourself say Travel Tart, there’s “No Hurry in Africa” and once you settle into the Tanzanian way of doing things, it’s a great way to live and a great way to handle life’s problems! You learn to appreciate the day to day and how lucky you are to be alive and healthy and free. Tanzanians are great craic to be around and the country itself is extraordinarily beautiful, so that more than made up for the hiccups that came along from time to time.

David Hasselhoff Pictures

The Travel Tart: I was wondering, what was the motivation to leave Ireland (and all of that great beer) and move to Africa for a long term stint? (Plus I love the Irish Slang!)

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Sarah Carroll: Never really meant to, it just happened. I moved back. I’m in Dublin for now just watching my skin grow paler.

The Travel Tart: I love the name Hostel Hoff. Did you ever have a drink at the almost as funny George Bush Bar while you were in Tanzania?

Sarah Carroll: Nope! Tried to figure out where that was the other day but can’t place it!

The Travel Tart: One thing that amazes me about Africa is how people get by with virtually nothing, and pretty much recycle anything. It’s probably hard to find decent shoes in Tanzania – did you ever buy a pair made from used car tyres?

Sarah Carroll: No way, have you tried those things? They rip the feet off you, seriously! My Masai security guards lived in them but their feet are like leather. I’m not hard enough.

The Travel Tart: Anyway, sorry for the digression, and back to volunteering stuff. You have also had an American volunteer agency approach you to look after their volunteers saying they would pay what you usually charged (around 400 usd per month) while they charged $1600 per month, hence keeping 75% of the money in America. Sounds like money for jam to me! How common is this dodgy practice in the volunteering world?

Sarah Carroll: I’m not sure the money they charge is dodgy. Its exorbitant but its business. They are travel agents, not a charity. Whats dodgy is the fact that they profiteer from poverty – pretend that they are selling the opportunity to “Make a difference” when more often than not they are exploiting the communities where they operate. That’s what’s dodgy. Charging high fees I guess is their prerogative. If people will pay it, why wouldn’t they?

But to answer your question, these agencies are hugely common. Everywhere. These are multi million dollar businesses, many with operations in over 30 countries, sending out upwards of 7000 volunteers a year. That’s some amount of revenue when you are charging 1500 a month. But this thing is, not only can people volunteer for cheaper, but they can also do it better if they avoid these agencies, and that’s what we are trying to highlight.

The Travel Tart: Finally, I ask all interviewers where and when they first discovered they loved travelling. Where was it for you?

Sarah Carroll: Australia, college summer between 2nd and 3rd year. Couldn’t believe the freedom of waking up in the morning and driving where ever we wanted, sleeping where ever we landed. Magic.

The Travel Tart: Thanks so much for your time. I think I’m much more informed on how to volunteer ethically!

More Volunteering Abroad Stuff

Once again check out The Ethical Volunteer website and Indigogo Fundraising Page.

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12 thoughts on “Volunteering Abroad – The Ugly Side and How to do it Ethically”

  1. Avatar Of Tammyonthemove

    Great interview! How to volunteer ethically is something I campaign for too, and I think it should be talked about much more, so thanks for raising it on your blog.

    I have been volunteering on and off in Cambodia for two years now, and I see so much bad practice here too. It is crazy how gullible some well-meaning travelers are. And while they are partly to blame for not checking organizations properly, a lot of organizations are just not honest and transparent enough. Often people only find out about bad practice during their placement, so it is certainly a tricky area. I recommend going with really well-known organizations such as VSO (UK), Peace Corps (US) or AVI (Australia). They work ethically and don’t charge the volunteers any fees either. Because they mainly run long-term volunteering placements you are also able to make a much bigger impact than during a three-week placement for example.

  2. Avatar Of Sarah Carroll

    I agree Tammy. And often times the problem is that volunteers don’t think to question. Its not even a matter of supplying the information about bad volunteering practices, its about raising awareness that volunteers need to question in the first place. And that is never more evident than in the “orphanage tourism” industry in Cambodia that I am sure you are aware of.
    As for VSO etc, they are great, but the volunteer industry is booming, and for those that don’t have the time or skills to go through VSO, they will look elsewhere – which is where agencies come in. So while I fully agree, I do think there needs to be a viable alternative to agencies that benefit communities.

  3. Avatar Of Helen

    Hey Sarah, Hey Anthony!

    Great interview!

    I just looked at your site Sarah and saw Fisherman’s Rest. I stayed there for a while in Malawi! Great place!


  4. Avatar Of Rachel

    I thin volunteering abroad is one of the most exciting way of traveling, and really experiencing the whole place you’re going to visit. I haven’t done that before, but I have a friend who’s done it, and I’ve seen a lot of bloggers who do it, and I think they’re pretty awesome.

  5. Avatar Of Kathryn Burrington
    Kathryn Burrington

    Hi, So great to hear about this project as there are so many dodgy or misguided volunteer schemes. You might be interested in one company I recently wrote about who I think is a shining example of how to do it right.

  6. Avatar Of Chris Mc

    Great interview. I was one of those misguided volunteers but fortunately, I decided to go stay in Sarah’s hostel in Tanzania and had one of the best experiences in my life.

    I got to experience a great culture, learn so much about Tanzania through exposure to real people on the ground and challenge my pre-conceptions of “Africa”. I put this down to Sarah’s down to earth approach and open-mindedness.

    Keep up the great work!

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