The whole concept of paying to volunteer inspires me with cynicism. After all, when you pay someone, it usually means that they will give you something in return, but that doesn't really seem to add up when it comes to paid volunteer experiences. If I have to pay to volunteer, then I assume that the organisation I'm paying actually considers me more hassle than help. Which begs the question: how effective and/or useful is voluntary work?
A TravelMole report about the surge in popularity of "humanitarian travel" does little to defeat my cynicism. Humanitarian travel is big business.
Luckily enough though, my job with Travellerspoint gives me plenty of opportunity to read about travellers who are out there volunteering. A few blogs I've read recently have highlighted the merits of being a volunteer.
Nat and Evan are volunteering in Kazakhstan for Crossroads, "an aid organization that seeks to meet needs with resources." As Evan describes it, "it’s kind of like a huge Vinnies on a wholesale level, but rather than selling goods, CR gives them away to welfare organisations that reach out to those most in need across the globe."
Without a substantial knowledge of Russian, how helpful are Nat and Evan able to be? While they have been limited by the language problem, they've still got their hands dirty - Evan helps out with a building renovation while Nat works in the office and cooks:
Her biggest challenge has been coming up with recipes with a very limited range of ingredients and big cost constraints (aim $1 per person per day). Needless to say she has come up with some delightful variations on the standard fare of carrots, cabbage and potatoes.
I have already mentioned Brian Chu's blog. In his latest entry, entitled Who's helping who?, he writes about his volunteer experience with an orphanage in Peru, where he spends his afternoons helping adolescent boys with their homework and playing ping pong and other games with them. Part of the experience of volunteering is coming to understand that the people we thought we were there to help might actually be able to teach us a thing or two about life.
I can go in and out of Inabif as I please, to and from Huancayo whenever, and back and forth across borders with relative ease. Those boys don't even leave the orphanage's perimeters very often. And yet they live like they're on top of the world.
While I'm still cynical about paying exorbitant amounts of money to volunteer for an organisation that may or may not find my work beneficial, Brian and Nat and Evan's blogs do assuage my cynicism somewhat. Even if you're not going to change the world with your volunteer work, your time and effort could really help an organisation; and you may find the contact with people less "fortunate" than yourself a humbling experience.