13 August 2007
by Sally Brown
In the world of eco-travel, nothing can remain popular for long before the inevitable backlash begins. This has certainly been true of volunteering projects abroad. First came the cry that all gappers are neo-colonialists; then came the scepticism of the motives of the volunteers (are their motives really unselfish?) and the companies (how exactly do these project fees get spent?).
This traveller's response, posted on the Guardian's Been there site, is typical: "You will pay an awful lot of money for the convenience factor, of which very little goes to the community you stay with [ ... ] you may come away feeling a little jaded about the 'ethical' aspects of your trip."
It should go without saying that you should verify the credentials of any volunteering company you plan to work for: all should provide details of how they spend your cash. But are we too quick to start criticising those with good intentions? Many would-be volunteers are far from ignorant of the issues. As one member of Lonely Planet's Thorntree forum puts it: "To me, a volunteer that does amazing work for selfish reasons is much more valuable than the most well mean(ing), but worthless volunteer."
So the next ethical dilemma facing would-be volunteers is how many good deeds does it take to cancel carbon emissions racked up en route?
Of course, the argument is you don't have to go abroad to volunteer. You can volunteer at home for any number of organisations. So why do we feel the need to volunteer in someone else's country? Apart from the fact that helping out at Age Concern isn't quite as sexy as tagging turtles on the Barrier Reef.
When Ben Keene set up the much-publicised Tribewanted programme, encouraging people to build a sustainable community on an island in northern Fiji, he didn't predict opening such a can of worms. "I didn't have green guilt until I started trying to be green," he says. "I knew sustainability was going to be an important part of the project but I didn't realise that it would become the most important part."
Ben's feeling of "being pulled in two directions simultaneously" is shared by many of today's travellers. Maybe this guilt is misdirected. Travelling is neither the sole cause of climate change nor is it accountable for all the ills of the world. In many places tourism is the sole industry relied upon by communities and can afford many benefits. That is not to ignore that travel is mainly a luxury and should be one of the first things to change in our efforts to reduce global warming, but making people feel negative and guilty is the first way to lose their attention and hence cooperation.
Take heart in the work of Rwanda Ecotours, a company that is owned and run by three Rwandan brothers who offer gorilla tracking and adventure holidays in east Africa. They have recently won the Ecoclub Ecotourism Award 2007 for an initiative to turn gorilla poachers towards farming, tour guiding and other less destructive employment. Through the success of their business - supported by "ecotourists" visiting and using their services - several projects have been initiated and funded to conserve the natural environment as well as the local culture. The success rate has been staggering.
This raises the question of who does it better when it comes to local community work: us who live on the other side of the world, or those who live there and will continue the work once we've left?· Sally Broom is the founder of volunteering site Your Safe Planet