Should backpackers ‘give back’?

You know the feeling. You’ve been away for several months, constantly living out of a bag and wondering where you’re going to go next. The ‘backpacker’s fatigue’ is starting to rear its ugly head and all those beautiful views are starting to look a bit…meh.

A great way to combat this feeling, to start appreciating how lucky you are to be away in the first place, is by stopping still and volunteering.

There’s good and bad points to the growing trend of voluntourism and I’m here to present both – so if you’re a backpacker who wants to give back, you can make an informed decision.


So what is voluntourism, anyway?

This catch-all term describes a growing number of travellers who don’t just want to see the world – they want to make it better and to give back to the communities they visit.

While it’s very admirable to seek to do good in this way, if you’re considering a volunteering project, be careful.

Because in some cases, you’ll be asked to pay a huge sum of money for the privilege. Of course, you’ll have to cover your flight; sometimes your food and board; and sometimes an additional grand or two simply to be allowed to volunteer your skills.

And once you’ve spent all that money, you might find that the work you’ve signed up for consists of little more than holding a spade…like a right tool! Fair enough though – after all, if you’re a family who has just moved into a house built entirely by a group of fresh-faced gap year students, would you really feel safe with that roof over your heads?

Even if you land a more ‘meaningful’ project, like teaching English, ask yourself this: is it good for a classroom of orphans, many of whom are likely to suffer from attachment issues, to see you pack up again in a few weeks? Probably not.

In many cases, the work that needs doing is better left to local, skilled workers. They could be recruited and paid, with money kept within the community. But why would some of the organisations involved do this when they can charge a fortune for a volunteer to get their cultural fix?! Corporations in the recent past have been slammed for using hopeful interns to their advantage. So why is it allowed here?


That’s the downside. Now for the up…

If you’re responsible about what organisation you go with, voluntourism be a thoroughly enriching and beneficial experience for everyone involved. For instance, I’ve found Workaway to be of amazing use while I travel. I can volunteer my skills (and learn new ones) from my ‘host’ while living for free in some amazing places. More often than not, food is covered too! It means I get to engage myself fully with the community in which I’m based, getting to know local people and contributing in a real way rather than passing through as a tourist or scratching the surface as a fly-by volunteer.

Voluntary Service Overseas, or VSO, is a wonderful organisation with the goal of ‘fighting poverty through education’. Again, it only looks for volunteers with specific skills, usually on a longer-term basis, so that the work that’s being done is truly rewarding for all involved.

There’s plenty of ways to make a little cash while travelling – TEFL, in particular, is a chance for English speakers to stretch their travel budget further while meeting new people and living in a beautiful setting.

However, this again runs the risk of taking local jobs. I met a local girl in Hanoi (with amazing English) who ran free classes all hours of the day and was doing continuous exams to be – maybe – granted a low-paid substitute teaching job. Meanwhile, her Western roommate had been offered a full-time job within a couple of days of arriving. Great pay, plenty of hours, no qualification or experience other than the fact that her native language was English. Her great job came at the expense of her roommate…and probably, her students.

If you’ve got TEFL qualifications or similar, great. But do make sure that you’ve got some actual teaching experience before you apply for these opportunities, at the cost of others.


Why it’s good to give back

Volunteering has many benefits. It helps you become cost-neutral for a while, you can develop professional and soft skills, enhance your CV if that’s what you want…and most importantly, it allows an insight into community life that regular tourists never get to see. You can truly make a difference if you volunteer in a responsible manner – and the resulting experience will stay with you long after your plane takes off.

In fact, as tourists we have this responsibility, too. Even if we’re just passing through and not volunteering our time, we need to respect the community we visit and to learn about their culture…after all, isn’t that where the joy of travelling lies?

I’ve found that the best ways to be a ‘responsible tourist’ are:

  1. Staying in homestays, community-run accommodation i.e. by ditching the fancy hotel, plus eating and shopping local when you can. This ploughs money back into the local community instead of international brands.
  2. Visiting a social enterprise (like a shop in Hoi An, Vietnam called Reaching Out – a souvenir shop that supports local families by providing vocational training to disadvantaged locals).
  3. Getting involved in a language exchange. If you can’t commit to teaching English for a longer period of time, learners are always looking for native English speakers to practice with – plus, you get to learn the local lingo, too!
  4. Volunteering from home – if you’ve had a meaningful experience in a community and want to give back, you can always do so once you’ve returned home. Via email or Skype, keep the relationships that you developed going. Become a mentor, offer advice or just help people practice English. That could be the most meaningful voluntary work you ever do.


My advice for volunteering abroad? It’s through spending money in the right places, offering skills over a reasonable amount of time and always showing curiosity to learn more about the local community and culture…that’s how backpackers can give back.

This post was written by Emma from Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow. When she’s not living in Hoi An and volunteering for Hoi An Now, she’s travelling the world and writing about her experiences. You’re more than welcome to join her on her journey. 🙂

This post was first published on Lifeasabutterfly.

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