The Broke Backpacker & The Truth Behind Voluntourism


Desperate to explore the world but unsure how to do it without breaking the bank? Veteran backpacker, Will Hatton from The Broke Backpacker, has been travelling the world for seven years now on a budget of just $100 a week. Today, he tells us his top tips for exploring the world and having epic budget adventures…

The Truth Behind Voluntourism

Pack your back, hit the road and save the world! It’s a wonderful concept, but just how easy is to make a difference whilst travelling?

I personally have extremely mixed feelings about people volunteering abroad for a week here or there then filling their Facebook page with pictures of them and beaming crowds of children… it just doesn’t seem, well, ethical.

Do these individuals have any child-care experience? Are they really able to make a difference to a child’s life in just one week or do they risk forming a connection with an at-risk individual and then leaving?

I’m pretty good with kids but I have no real qualifications so I make a point of never volunteering with children. I prefer to stick with what I’m good– namely, swinging a pick-axe and coordinating a team on a build project.

These days though, it seems even the simple pleasures of using a pick-axe in the hope of helping a local community are at threat – I’ve been hearing more and more stories of unethical volunteering companies charging vast sums of money from their venturers and then providing them with very little support on the ground; often the projects themselves are not sourced ahead of time and volunteers end up building toilet blocks which will never be used or painting class-rooms in a poor rural area which cannot afford to hire a teacher.

Volunteering abroad is, in fact, a mine-field. If you want to do it properly, it’s really important that you find a reputable volunteering organisation and think carefully about where your skills would be best applied.

I can truthfully say that volunteering has changed my life, although you might be surprised how.

Some backpackers, perhaps due to a lack of education or simple naivety, volunteer because they want to have that ‘life changing experience’ sold to them from a glossy magazine. Others volunteer to get a new profile picture for Facebook and to justify their rhetoric on ‘giving back’. I’m under no illusions, I’ve been travelling for seven years and have volunteered for around 8 months of that time; is this enough? Probably not. It’s what I feel comfortable with though and frankly I would rather volunteer as and when I like then feel obligated to help save the world; I think this is where a lot of people go wrong, they are so desperate to help out that they charge in all guns blazing without doing any research and often end up going with an organisation which is simply out to make money. I have volunteered with some great organisations, some terrible ones and some unbelievably informal ones – I really do enjoy just rocking up somewhere new and seeing if there’s anything I can get involved in.

Adventure is very liberating
Adventure is very liberating

A simple Google search for ‘voluntarism’ will bring up articles about its drawbacks rather than its benefits. The recent Nepal earthquake is a tragedy and I was planning on heading straight out there until I did some research. Organisations on the ground categorically requested that, unless you have specific skills which can be used with the relief effort, you are only going to get in the way – in short, they had plenty of blokes with pickaxes already. You should only volunteer when you bring real value to a project.

That’s not to say you need a skill or trade to bring value to a project; you don’t. It is pretty easy to find an appropriate role for yourself where you can help with a project and learn new skills at the same time. You just need to be realistic –  a recent disaster zone is not a good theatre for unskilled or newbie volunteers.

Unfortunately, when it comes to volunteering, selflessness often marches hand in hand with selfishness. Well-meaning volunteers are taken advantage of. Recently, it has come to light that the huge demand by volunteers to work with orphans in Cambodia has actually created a ‘market for orphans’. Children are used. Parents will rent out their children to shady orphanages, which often aren’t actually even orphanages.

Unfortunately,  it’s not just Cambodia with dodgy volunteering organisations. I had a somewhat shady volunteering experience in India, where the Indian volunteer manager was constantly hitting on the female volunteers. I never saw him do a shred of work; he was the laziest man I have ever met in my life.

In spite of my ranting above, don’t be turned off by volunteering. Volunteering can change the world, it can change you and it change the people you come into contact with. At the end of the day, you help not only others but also you are doing yourself a massive favour. You will learn something. You will call up first-hand awareness of the reality that some of our neighbors face daily. You just need to know your place and to be sure that you partner with a reputable organisation.

Volunteering on a goat-farm in the Holy Land...
Volunteering on a goat-farm in the Holy Land..

When it comes to volunteering; you can help in many ways, both big and small.  For starters, you may be better off helping out somewhere close to your home. Getting involved with local outreach programs can be a better and more sustainable option. If you are thinking about volunteering outside of your comfort zone, I suggest you do your homework. If you really want to make a difference, consider learning some new skills; go on a carpentry course or sign up for a TEFL qualification; you will be able to offer a lot more to your host community.

The key to successful volunteering is being well-informed and being prepared. If you really find yourself wanting to help out with a situation like the recent earthquake in Nepal, perhaps consider doing what I did – accept that, right now, you cannot help on the ground and, instead, organise a fundraising evening with all the money raised being donated to an organisation helping out on the ground; I highly recommend supporting the Disaster Emergency Committee.

When it comes to picking a good organisation to volunteer with – it’s all about doing your homework.  Does it operate for profit? Is it registered? Is it transparent?

There are some good companies out there with ethical practices, you just need to look.

Do not become just one more camera-happy ‘Gap Yah’ student – stop and think – you can make a huge difference to the world, you can be a positive influence; all you need to do is be sure that you are putting your energy and time into the right place in a sustainable manner. Avoid voluntourism.

Take as much learning as you can from a volunteering experience but not at the expense of the communities you are supposed to help. If you put an emphasis more on volunteering than tourism, you will be on the right path.

So, what are you waiting for, make a commitment and get yourself on the road to making a difference in a sustainable way.




About Will Hatton: Writer and photographer. Adventurer and vagabond. Master of the handstand pushup. Conqueror of mountains, survivor of deserts and crusader for cheap escapades. Will is an avid hitch-hiker, couch-surfer and bargain-seeker. He is a devout follower of the High Temple of Backpackistan and the proud inventor of the man-hug. Will blogs over at The Broke Backpacker about his adventures around the world, you can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter or, if your really friendly, hunt him down on the road for a cheeky pint.

Will Hatton

Writer and photographer. Adventurer and vagabond. Master of the handstand pushup. Conqueror of mountains, survivor of deserts and crusader for cheap escapades. Avid hitch-hiker, couch-surfer and bargain-striker. Determined to explore some of the world's least visited countries. Devout follower of the High Temple of Backpackistan. Has an extensive vocabulary but mostly uses ‘awesome’ to convey all emotions. Inventor of the man-hug. Has been described as an incorrigible cad. In constant need of a haircut. Smells of old leather.

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