Posts tagged ‘volunteering’

December 6th, 2011

The Best in Travel Journalism 2011

by Joanna Eng

Like last year, I read through the winning articles of the 2010–2011 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition and wanted to post my favorites here.

“Out of the Mist” by Kim Brown Seely, Virtuoso Life – Takes the reader from a Rwanda known for genocide to a Rwanda with a growing ecotourism market.

“Loneliness the Same in Any Language” by April Orcutt, San Francisco Chronicle – This short piece reminds us that the most memorable travel moments often have nothing to do with seeing the sights.

“On the Backs of Giants” by Melanie Radzicki McManus, Star Tribune – Taking care of elephants in Thailand sounds much more interesting than just riding them.

Photo by Andrea Hale

I also ordered the winning book Zinester’s Guide to NYC: The Last Wholly Analog Guide to NYC by Ayun Halliday and will be reviewing it here soon.

January 7th, 2011

Do Voluntourists Help or Harm?

by Guest

By Katia Savchuk for

Performing short-term volunteer work abroad is “potentially exploitative” of vulnerable populations, according to a recent study of “voluntourism” in African orphanages. Authored by researchers from South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council and Queen Mary, University of London, the report found that foreign volunteers who came, bonded and left harmed the emotional and social development of children.

“Volunteer vacations” also risked taking low-skilled work from locals and burdening host organizations with overhead costs, the report stated.

“Well-meaning young people should be…discouraged from taking part in such tourist expeditions and be given guidelines on how to manage relationships to minimize negative outcomes,” the researchers, Linda Richter and Amy Norman, wrote.

The study made headlines in November 2010 in the Telegraph and Guardian, which published articles warning would-be do-gooders about the potential pitfalls of volunteering abroad.

“These trips raise profound questions about misplaced idealism and misconceived attitudes,” Ian Birrell wrote in the Guardian, noting that Voluntary Service Overseas, a UK-based organization that sends volunteers abroad, has even called some volunteer efforts a new form of colonialism.

Aaron Dorfman, education director at the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), knows that service trips can raise thorny issues. The organization sends 500 volunteers each year to Africa, Asia, Central America and South America for stints of one week to a year.

A spring-break trip that delivers $150 worth of labor to a needy community costs the organization $1,800 and potentially costs locals jobs, Dorfman conceded in an article for Zeek. Realizing why the investment is worth it calls for a wider perspective, he argued. For example: “What if the desired outcome isn’t only a new fence or community center but also the volunteers’ deeper, more personal understanding of the challenges of the developing world that leads to a lifetime of activism in pursuit of justice?”

David Friedkin, an AJWS volunteer in Mumbai, India, feels his four months abroad have already left an indelible mark. “This has definitely sparked an interest in doing development or social support work, be it at an international or domestic level,” he said. As part of a year-long program, Friedkin does everything from direct service to communications work for a local nonprofit that runs support centers for drug users.

Friedkin knows that temporary volunteers can sometimes be detrimental. “Will [they] leave a vacuum in their wake once they leave? Or will they work with others so that they may learn what the volunteer has to offer and therefore expand their capabilities?” are key questions, he said.

Friedkin has partnered with local staff on projects to ensure that they outlive his tenure. AJWS’s extensive training regimen and long-term relationships with organizations also help volunteers be effective, he said.

Lydia Gilbert, who works for the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, is convinced that she made an impact when she spent a year after college volunteering in Dominican schools with The DREAM Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization. By the time she left, she had helped start an after-school program for at-risk youth, a community garden and a Parent-Teacher Association.

“If you can improve one child’s life, I think that’s an impact,” Gilbert said. Far from taking local jobs, she helped youth build skills to enter the job market.  Most foreign volunteers help over-stretched staff or support causes that create jobs, argued Peter Slowe, founder of Projects Abroad, one of the UK’s largest international volunteer organizations, in a Telegraph article responding to the Richter-Norman report.  Volunteers also spend millions of dollars each year, mainly on local staff and services, Slowe wrote.

Gilbert did find it difficult to leave the children she worked with after bonding with them, but she believes her presence also gave them a unique opportunity for cultural and knowledge exchange. “It’s opening up their world,” she said.

Her time abroad not only reinforced her commitment to a career in public service but also gave her a reality check. Ultimately, she said, the experience “really opened my eyes to sustainable tourism and how important it really is to come into a community and not disrupt the balance.”

December 21st, 2010

Stay with a Local

by Joanna Eng

For adventurous travelers, crashing with strangers is one way to avoid the cost, waste, and impersonal nature of staying in hotels. CouchSurfing has gotten a lot of attention as a community of travelers who offer each other free places to stay.

Photo by jon_a_ross

There are more similar networks popping up, and I wanted to introduce you to a few. is just like CouchSurfing, except it’s meant specifically for those traveling by bicycle. It could be a great way to get advice on the best bike routes, exchange cycling stories, and meet people with similar interests.

HelpX is for travelers who want to work in exchange for accommodations. Hosts include organic farmers, small business owners, hostel owners, and regular homeowners who could use a hand with anything from harvesting to babysitting, painting to greeting other guests. Talk about living like a local!

Airbnb lists accommodations offered in people’s homes, but they’re not free. Guests could stay in a humble guest room, a room in a bed and breakfast, an entire empty apartment or house, or a tree house in someone’s back yard.

I’m excited to choose my own adventure someday using one of these networks.