Are You a “Barbie Savior”? How to do Voluntourism the Right Way

June 15, 2016

A few months ago, Barbie Savior began an Instagram sensation when her images of saving humanity started circulating the world.

The parody account features Barbie in all kinds of do-gooding positions, like helping children in Africa while simultaneously embarking on exotic safaris. The entire thing is a clever commentary on the “white savior” complex, and the troubling background of some volunteer organizations.
The Barbie Savior parody account offers a clever commentary on the "white savior" complex.

The Barbie Savior parody account offers a clever commentary on the “white savior” complex.
Many people feel that voluntourism actually holds back places like Africa, where countries can become dependent on foreign aid. It’s not limited to Africa, either – in recent years, NGOs in Cambodia called for a ban on orphanage tourism. As it turns out, many children in orphanages aren’t actually orphans, and are exploited for profit.

So how do you know which volunteer organizations to trust? How can you know that you’re actually doing some good in the world?

Look for Organizations With Long-Standing Relationships in the Community

Shannon O’Donnell is the blogger behind A Little Adrift, and she’s written the book on ethical volunteering abroad. In an email interview, she pointed out that most people questioning the ethicalness of volunteer experiences are often the volunteers themselves.

Things can get tricky when an organization is trying to balance the wants of the volunteers and the needs of the community. The best organizations have already developed a long-standing relationship with the community.
Organization that have long-term relationships with a community are the best to work with.

Organization that have long-term relationships with a community are the best to work with.
Think through the elements of your volunteer program and figure out if there is an exit strategy,” Shannon said. “Many of the best volunteer programs aim to make themselves obsolete by building local skills and capacity to run and manage their own cities, towns, and projects.”

Ask Where Your Money is Going

Most volunteers will have to pay a fee to participate in a program. This usually covers basic accommodations and food, but not always. And paying more money doesn’t necessarily ensure better quality, but pricing transparency tells all.

Before you sign on, check to see how the organization breaks down their pricing. All you have to do is ask, and if the organization is a dependable one, you’ll get a transparent answer.

If you’re not getting any straight answers, there’s a good chance your money isn’t going where you think it is.

Trust Your Research, and Talk to People

Megan Jerrard is an avid volunteer and traveler, and the blogger behind Mapping Megan. Above all, she urges travelers to do extensive research before signing on as a volunteer abroad.

“The key to finding a volunteer organization you can trust is to do your research and examine the work you will be doing and how it affects local people and their environment,” she said in an interview.
When it comes to finding a good volunteer opportunity, ask around. Draw from the past experiences of others.

When it comes to finding a good volunteer opportunity, ask around. Draw from the past experiences of others.
And don’t just contact the organization itself, either. “It’s also a great idea to connect with past volunteers to ask them their opinions of a project,” she said.

Trust your gut instinct. If something feels off, it probably is.

If You Have a Skill, Teach it to Others

The best thing you can do as a volunteer is to teach your skills to others in the community, so that they may continue on with your work and eventually become independent. If you’re a doctor, engineer, or lawyer, for example, there’s a lot of good you can do.

It’s the unskilled volunteer organizations that get the most flack. “Unskilled volunteer placement companies face the most industry criticism for their emphasis of building programs demanded by volunteers who want to learn on the job, rather than prioritizing the home communities,” said Shannon.

Your intentions might be good, but you need to take a step back and honestly assess whether or not you’d be contributing something meaningful and valuable. It may be more worth your time to travel and learn about the culture first.

Pro tip: if you can’t do a certain skill in your home country, don’t do it abroad. Only a shady organization would ask you to perform specific tasks that would require expertise elsewhere.

Look for Grassroots Projects

When it comes to finding the right project for you, it’s best to seek independent grassroots organizations. This refers to companies on the ground, and are usually smaller-led projects with a very specific nature.
Grassroots organizations are the best volunteer organizations to work with. 

Grassroots organizations are the best volunteer organizations to work with.
Megan Jerrard points out that grassroots organizations are the most ethical form of volunteering, as your money will go towards the project rather than a third party in the western world.

Shannon O’Donnell also recognized a need for grassroots support, and so launchedGrassroots Volunteering, a database listing grassroots projects around the world. It’s a sustainable tourism model that helps travelers engage in thoughtful, purposeful travel.

Money goes directly to the local communities, rather than large corporations out of country. Did you know that 95% of the money generated by tourism doesn’t serve the destination, people, or communities you travel through? Packaged vacations are a big problem – people see brands they recognize, and are more likely to trust them. Grassroots means your money serves those on the ground.

Don’t Get Discouraged

Having said all this, don’t get discouraged. It’s good to look at these volunteering opportunities from a critical angle, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference in the world.

Just keep in mind you’re probably not going to wipe out hunger in Africa. First of all, volunteering isn’t about you. Small meaningful changes can go much further than indulging in your own egotistical ideals.

But volunteering while traveling is one of the most rewarding things you can do, when it’s done right. So take the time to do your homework, and get ready to make a small difference in the world.

Have you tried voluntourism? Tell us about it in the comments.

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