Alternatives: what does good practise look like in practice?
In the previous section, I covered some of the principles of responsible tourism and volunteering. In this section, I give examples of organisations and resources which showcase good practice or offer alternatives. As a reminder, note that where I cite an organisation as a model of good practice, my endorsement only refers to the specific practices discussed and should not be understood as an ethical endorsement for the organisation’s practices as a whole.
Organisations that do not support orphanage tourism and volunteering
ReThink orphanages keeps a list of organisations that have never supported orphanage tourism or volunteering, have ceased doing so, or are in the process of withdrawing. It is worth delving deeper into the work of some of these organisations.
- Intrepid Travel was one of the first travel organisations to move away from orphanage tourism. It has since taken an active role in advocating against orphanage tourism and supporting initiatives which promote family-based care.
- Projects Abroad announced in 2017 that it would stop supporting orphanage volunteering placements. Since 2018 it has been working with child protection agencies to withdraw its support gradually and carefully so as to ensure no harm comes to the children involved.
- GVI has also withdrawn from offering orphanage volunteering placements, and its website outlines the responsible transition strategy it took to make this change.
Matching a volunteer’s skills to a self-identified need in the recipient community is a key part of responsible volunteering. However, it is important to recognise that this includes both hard and soft skills. Whilst technical qualifications and professional experience are, of course, a vital part of a person’s skills-set, a volunteer’s softer skills and aptitudes are also vitally important in making an appropriate match.
- Skilled Impact is a volunteering organisation working in India and SriLanka on women’s empowerment, disability, teaching and education, and business and social enterprise. It has clear sustainable development and cross-cultural learning objectives. As well as matching skills of volunteers to community needs, it uses a comprehensive vetting process, works with local organisations and partners that understand the community, and aims to build local capacity rather than dependency.
- people and places – responsible volunteering is a social enterprise which almost began as a campaign to ‘name and shame’ unethical practices in the volunteer sector, but instead took the more noble path of establishing an ethical and responsible volunteer agency to showcase good practice. It has more than achieved this goal by winning the 2009 Responsible Tourism Awards – Best Volunteering Organisation and the 2013 World Responsible Tourism Awards – Best for Responsible Campaigning. It describes itself as a bridge that enables volunteers to work with programmes that enable local people to access the skills and experience they need to build the future they want for themselves. It strongly emphasises that informed consent and transparency is essential to achieve these goals.
- Skillshare International is a volunteering organisation working in Africa and Asia in areas of health, gender justice, livelihoods, sports for development and conflict transformation. Supporting the agenda of its local partner organisations is a key part of its approach. It also has a strong focus on development education and building the leadership capacity of its local partners.
- Palms Australia views itself as a development agency with a strong development philosophy. It places skilled Australians, from a range of disciplines and trades, in long-term assignments in remote communities to build the skills of local people. It only works with communities that have identified for themselves a skill which they want to develop.
Volunteering for children
With so many ethical and safeguarding issues to navigate around volunteering directly with children, many organisations choose not to support any forms of direct work with children. However, children’s issues remain a very popular cause which volunteers want to support. Some volunteering organisations have managed to successfully square the circle by re-framing their projects as volunteering for children. This often involves supporting the work of children’s NGOs and projects through ‘backroom’ support rather than working directly with the children.
- The Advocacy Project develops partnerships between Peace Fellows (volunteers) and local organisations in marginalised communities working on human rights and social justice issues. The Peace Fellows role can be any or all of the following: to help the local partner identify programme or advocacy opportunities; amplify the partner’s voice and raise awareness of their work through blogging, videos and news bulletins; provide administrative, management and media support, such as helping the partner develop or improve its website; and undertake fundraising and international promotion of the partner’s cause, which continues after the Peace Fellow has returned home. While many of the Advocacy Project’s placements are supporting child rights initiatives, the Peace Fellows do not have direct contact with children as this is not where their skills are most needed.
- The Umbrella Foundation (TUF) is a development NGO rather than a volunteering agency, but it accepts volunteers to support its programmes in Nepal. TUF has seen a revolutionary transformation during its life-time which deserves special mention here. In its early years, TUF ran eight children’s homes housing more than 300 children, along with many ‘orphanage’ volunteers who provided the organisation with vital income. In line with best practice, TUF gradually and responsibly transitioned away from the children’s home model towards family reintegration and community development and simultaneously transitioned its volunteering programme towards more responsible practices no longer involving direct work with children. It currently takes a maximum of 2-3 volunteers at a time with skills which can support the organisation’s development programmes – for example, a recent volunteer was a nurse and midwife who ran a sexual and reproductive health workshop with staff. The volunteers will occasionally get to meet children and young people at supervised social events, but they do not work directly with them.
Learning service and development education trips
A growing trend among travel, volunteer and development organisations is the re-framing of volunteering as development education, learning adventures and learning service trips. A few of these deserve special mention here.
- Ayana Journeys is a Cambodian responsible travel organisation and an official partner of Learning Service. In line with the learning service philosophy, it provides travel experiences with an emphasis on experiential learning to foster cultural empathy, a widening understanding of global issues, and an opportunity for travellers to reflect on their potential as members of an international community. In practice, this is actualised through meetings with local NGOs, social entrepreneurs, community leaders and change-makers, and facilitated educational activities such as debates and workshops.
- Where There Be Dragons has also adopted the learning service philosophy. It offers small group, custom-crafted travel programs in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Groups are led by experienced educators to develop an understanding of critical global issues through immersive travel, meaningful engagement, and empowered leadership. Activities such as language study and homestays are essential parts of its programmes. Dragons’ aim is to build empathy and foster a feeling of shared responsibility for a collective future.
- Global Exchange is an international human rights organisation promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. As part of its mission, it facilitates development education ‘reality tours’ where participants can learn about a country’s history, politics, economy, religion, government, health care, agriculture, education and environment, providing an opportunity to see first-hand beyond what is communicated by the mass media. Tours are not designed to provide immediate solutions or remedies to global problems, nor are they simply a kind of voyeurism. Rather, reality tours are meant to educate people about how we, individually and collectively, contribute to global problems, and then to suggest ways in which we can contribute to positive change locally and internationally.
- Palms Australia run development education trips known as ‘encounters’. These are small group tours that provide insights into daily life and culture in Timor Leste, Samoa, and Myanmar. These enable travellers to gain greater insight and understanding of sustainable approaches to development.
- Human Connections is a non-profit organisation in Mexico providing social and development education through bespoke travel experiences. It aims to empower communities while fostering conversations that shift perspectives and increase understanding.
Some organisations have intentionally moved away from volunteering placements altogether, or simply do not provide them because of the ethical complexities associated with volunteering. Instead, they see responsible, ethical and sustainable travel as playing an important role in its own right.
- Clean Travel is an independent community of local travel organisations that offers sustainable tourism experiences. It sees itself as the natural successor to volunteer tourism. Its tours enable travellers to both see the world and contribute to the communities they are visiting. It aims to empower local and sustainable operators with the tools and support needed to compete in the global market and reach more travellers directly, and it aligns its goals with the Sustainable Development Goals. Interestingly, its Founder, Macartan Gaughan, previously worked for The Umbrella Foundation in Nepal (discussed above) where he founded a trekking organisation led by care leavers – an initiative which ultimately led him on to establish Clean Travel.
- SocialTours is a social enterprise in Nepal influenced by CSR, responsible tourism, value-based decision making, and sensitivity to the local environment, local culture and local economy. It plays an active role in the sustainable tourism debate in both Nepal and globally.
Action at home
Whilst most of the debates about responsible volunteering have, rightly, focussed on the in-country placement element, there is a growing interest in what happens to these individuals after they return home and the role they can play. This links closely with the development of education and learning service approaches to travel and volunteering discussed earlier. These ideas not only concern how individuals process their experiences, but also to how they remain connected to the issues they learned about during their placement, and in turn, how they link these experiences with social action in their home context. The Advocacy Project (discussed above) has an obvious element of action at home through fundraising and awareness-raising of the social justice issues Peace Fellows learn about while overseas. International Citizen Service has also introduced an action at home element to its volunteering programme which asks returned volunteers to engage in social change projects which benefit their local communities. These schemes are not just about recognising the need for social engagement within your own community, but also about recognising that there are systemic causes of inequality, poverty and environmental degradation which cross international borders and operate on a global scale. In a similar vein, it should also be noted that high-quality and responsible volunteering programmes have existed within countries in the Global North for decades, providing motivation and skills-matching opportunities for people to ‘volunteer at home’. For more information about these schemes see Vostel in Germany and NCVO in the UK.
A notable segment of the volunteering sector includes third party portals that promote and sell volunteering projects designed and led by others. www.wegweiser-freiwilligenarbeit.com and www.guidisto-volontariat.fr are two sister online portals that do this by connecting prospective volunteers with volunteering organisations. These portals have deliberately excluded orphanage volunteering projects, as well as lion cub and unethical elephant projects. Volunteering organisations which wish to include their projects on the websites must undergo a screening process, and, indeed, membership is regularly refused to organisations because of their orphanage volunteering placements. The portals’ ambition is to increase the online visibility of well-run and responsible volunteering projects that benefit local communities.
Modern slavery statements
In response to the growing body of evidence linking orphanages with child trafficking, Australia was the first country to recognise orphanage trafficking in its legislation. Australia’s Modern Slavery Act requires large businesses and other entities with an annual consolidated revenue of at least AUD$100 million to report in their Modern Slavery Statements how they have assessed and mitigated the risk of orphanage trafficking and child exploitation in orphanages in their supply chains. The Australian Government has also published clear guidance to assist organisations with this process. Meanwhile in the UK, where the UK Modern Slavery Act does not specifically reference orphanage trafficking, TUI still chose to include in its Modern Slavery Statement 2017 (see page 45) how it prohibits orphanage visits (and school visits during school hours) as part of its efforts to curb child trafficking – a move which was applauded within the child protection sector.
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